Belfast: Kenneth Branagh’s disappointing homecoming [critique]

Ireland, his youth, his vocation… Although hailed by American critics, the new Kenneth Branagh smells more like mothballs than the real smells of childhood.

“Don’t sigh anymore my beauties, don’t sigh anymore… Men were always fickle” can we read in A lot of noise for nothing. There was a time when Branagh’s name was synonymous with great Shakespearean films. He was the Laurence Olivier of the nineties, a gifted British theater and filmmaker who made sumptuous and seductive costume films. Everyone loved him. However, Branagh ended up deceiving Shakespeare to succumb to the sirens of Hollywood, becoming an anonymous craftsman, appending his name to Marveleries, Disney remakes or soulless thrillers. His talent seemed to have definitely dissolved. Until American reviews and Oscar rumors took hold of this Belfast.

We are in 1969, in Belfast therefore. Buddy is 9 years old, and grows up between his mother, his older brother and his adored grandparents. His father works in England and is very often absent. When the film begins, tensions between Catholics and Protestants flare up. When the Orangemen try to recruit Buddy’s father, he refuses and becomes a potential target… Buddy’s childhood is turned upside down, but the boy takes refuge in the imagination and theaters.

From the first images (a prologue like a tourist clip for Belfast), it’s clear: beyond the simple autobiographical chronicle, Belfast reads like the return of a filmmaker to the sources of his vocation. Branagh intends to explore this indecisive zone between the History (of Ireland) and its (intimate) history, mixing the universal and the personal. A journey to find your identity, and why not, your mojo. In recent years, this kind of introspective project – “memory lane” films – has become a cliché of contemporary auteur cinema. In the genre, Branagh does not do things by halves. It’s all there: the black and white of Romethe declaration of love for the Sorrentino-style cinema, the evocation of a Shangri-la on the verge of fainting like in Tarantino… But it is nevertheless an older film that we constantly think of. Belfast works like the Hope and Glory by Borman. What Branagh says is that the Irish conflict (like the war for Boorman) was the powerful engine of his imagination. In a city ravaged by violence, everything – neighborhoods made uninhabitable by the attacks, homes run by women in the absence of men – was a pretext for games, phantasmagoria and escape. After a few scenes, we therefore ask ourselves the question: why, from the sets to the actors, including the photo and the dialogues, does it all sound so false? The staging first, with its silky black and white that resembles the look of old Harcourt photos. The characters, reduced to an accessory (Judi Dench’s safety glasses) or an accent. Nothing and no one ever really exists in this film. And then there is this mixture of opportunism and easy daydreaming that ends up sinking the project. Belfast would be there to shed light on Branagh’s filmography: his fascination with comics (he reads Thor on a sidewalk), his discovery of Shakespeare with his grandmother (only scene in color, so bloated), his first experiences of cinema (with his family that vibrates in front Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as if they were seeing an animated image for the first time). Perhaps the worst is his lack of perspective on The Troubles. It will be said that the experience of adolescence is filtered through the recklessness of youth, that everything is seen from the height of a child. But he is a good child, devoid of madness or real imagination (unlike the Boorman). We are touching on what has characterized Branagh’s works over the past few years. Even when the subject interests him, the result is never truly embodied. Belfast is a film safe and without much substance, a reassuring cocoon that can warm or irritate depending on your mood.

Of Kenneth Branagh. With Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds… Duration: 1h39. Released March 2, 2022

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