Before going to see Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical memoir of being nine years old as sectarian rioting engulfed his neighbourhood, I was aware that The Critics Were Divided™. Some of them at least.
Intriguingly, I’d noticed that while The Guardian had conferred the full five stars, its Sunday edition The Observer had damned the movie with a two-star verdict. I deliberately didn’t read the reviews but had an idea of the main thrust of The Observer’s criticism. I knew there was some gripe about not enough context being given to the unrest that came to be known (not to everyone’s liking) as the Troubles. I’d also caught a few snatches of Observer alumnus Mark Kermode mentioning on the radio that the film contained a lot of Van Morrison, which it undoubtedly does.
But, other than that (and a general awareness that Belfast has the contagious winter disease, Oscar Buzz), my expectations were largely unsullied. If you’d like to remain in a similar state of grace, I’d advise you to leg it off to the cinema now and continue reading when you return. Alternatively, and especially if you’re in two minds about whether to watch it or not, read on and allow me to share some thoughts.
Film reviewing is a fundamentally subjective exercise. It has to be. To boil a movie down to its constituent mechanics would be to miss most of what makes any film worth watching. Beware the review that only tells you what anyone could tell you. In my experience, basic plot facts are often the least reliable part of a review in any case. The legendary Roger Ebert frequently made errors in his synopses, but he had a wonderful feel for the intangible elements of a story.
So, all reviews should be offered, and taken, as one person’s response to a film. Hopefully a response informed by a knowledge and love of cinema. And a response which can help others in their appreciation of the film. Here at Indy Film Library, we also have the special task and privilege of offering our response to the film makers themselves. As such we tend to include rather more on the technicalities than we might if we were writing for audiences alone.
It’s in this spirit then that I offer you the opinion that Belfast is marvellous. It’s everything that cinema has the potential to be. It put me in mind of Jean Cocteau’s saying that a film is “a dream in which we all participate together”. Like all the best storytelling, it speaks to both the specific and the universal.
As something to look at, it’s beautiful: many frames would make magnificent still photos. In terms of what it wants to say, it’s really quite straightforward but makes its point carefully and persuasively. It’s a film about diaspora; particularly, about the pain of leaving not just a place but a community. At times the emotional heft of the piece left me struggling to remain composed.
I think it’s useful to know in advance that the story is essentially a fictionalised retelling of a period of Branagh’s own childhood. We know him to be a Belfast boy who did the second part of his growing up in England. The standard disclaimer about “any similarity to persons alive or dead” being “purely coincidental” was never more mendacious. So Branagh’s avatar, Buddy, is our guide and it’s his world he’s showing us. While the film ranges beyond a single point of view, we still witness many of the key moments as Buddy does. Conversations heard through partially closed doors. Rioting experienced in a bewildering mêlée of mostly taller bodies.
And it’s precisely because our portal into this story is a nine-year-old boy, bright at school but still unsure about almost everything, fascinated by movie stars, space and superheroes but existing in a world comprising literally no more than a few streets, that the film says the things it does and leaves unsaid the things it doesn’t.
A documentary approach might very well feel that it couldn’t address the sectarian unrest of 1969 without a run-up starting somewhere in the Middle Ages and taking in Cromwell, William of Orange, the Easter Rising and much more besides. And that might make The Observer regard it as a serious film. After all, critic Simran Hans whines that a “patina of nostalgia is used to avoid contextualising the Troubles, something the family feels separate from”.
Maybe she would have liked a scene with Buddy sitting through a history lesson as the teacher delivered an exposition dump. Or perhaps she would have been happier if Buddy had been recast as a Catholic and it had been his family getting burned out of house and home, rather than his neighbours on the cross-community street. It’s quite clear the family would love nothing more than to “feel separate” from the violence. But they can’t because it’s literally happening on their doorstep.
I can’t pretend to know what Hans was expecting when she watched Belfast. I don’t know if she was under any editorial pressure to offer a dissenting view, in opposition to that of The Guardian’s veteran critic Peter Bradshaw. I don’t even feel I’ve heard her full thoughts, given the infuriating tendency of her Observer pieces to shudder to a sudden halt after two or three apparently introductory paragraphs. Does she have a strict word limit? Did she write more that was unsympathetically cut out? It’s a mystery, but her review is thoroughly unsatisfying. It feels altogether too much like an attempt to stick out from the crowd, to boo when most of the others are cheering.
I find Charlotte O’Sullivan’s review for the Evening Standard a much more honest affair. I’m aware that this may largely be because I agree with it. But her summation that “Though it contains sentimental and self-serving moments, (and presses the ‘killer Van Morrison track’ button way too often), I loved it.” lets us know where we stand from the outset. She’s not being uncritical; she’s open to finding faults; but the movie won her heart. The review’s subheading “Anyone who says this personal movie isn’t political is kidding themselves” is clearly a dig at those drawing similar conclusions to Hans (although The Observer’s review was published more recently than the Standard’s).
I tend to read reviews sparingly before I choose to see a film and voraciously after, especially if I liked it. Because I want people to agree with me. I hope that they will have enjoyed the experience as much as I did. I’m sad that not everyone found Belfast to be a special treat. But I’m delighted that nothing I read deterred me from going to see it.