Kenneth Branagh’s directing career follows the path of a pendulum swing. In the 90s, he wrote, directed, and starred in some of the best Shakespeare adaptations to date; in the 2010s, he pivoted to big-budget dreck like Thor and Artemis Fowl (and what he did in the 2000s is—like for many of us—best left unsaid). Branagh’s behind-the-camera talent just isn’t suited for commercial ventures. Lucky for us, he’s returning to form with Belfast, a memoir of his childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It’s a nostalgic, personal, and political film that has everyone asking: did Kenneth Branagh see Roma?
The similarities to Cuarón’s masterwork are too numerous to not point out. It goes beyond the use of black and white. Both films are named after the director’s birthplace and framed by a political conflict that spilled out onto the streets. Both relive history through the eyes of a child but with hindsight of a man. They even share scenes of the director in a theater, staring transfixed at a movie that would inspire their work. It’s unlikely that Belfast was conceived independently of Roma—but the films couldn’t be more different in tone.
Roma is an expansive, multidimensional rumination; Belfast is a straightforward crowd-pleaser. You’ll never see a happier film set during the Troubles. Rather than stress the friction between Protestants and Catholics, Belfast celebrates togetherness as an alternative to hatred. Its characters say as much multiple times, and the movie makes sure you hear it. The most perceptible difference between Roma and Belfast is better heard than seen: Roma immerses the viewer in an elaborate soundscape, capturing all the little noises and silences of 1970s Mexico, but Belfast’s sound design puts a heavy emphasis on dialogue. In any given scene, the dominant sound is the spoken word. Branagh wants you to hear the jokes, the laments, and the pithy life lessons above all else. Watching Belfast is like listening to an impassioned sermon.
Its pulpit is populated by well-defined, beautifully acted, and instantly likable characters, so it’s a sermon you won’t be sleeping through. Branagh’s memories of his community are infectiously rosy. There’s conflict, of course—the era was named “the Troubles” for a reason—but the cheerful tone softens it into another reason to root for the characters. You’ll want the best for these people, especially Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, who exude enough grandparently love to end any civil war. Jude Hill is endearing as a young Kenneth Branagh as well.
Belfast sparks as a character drama, but it falls short as an encapsulation of time and place. Between the broad emotional palette, unremarkable exterior shots, and lack of political particulars, Belfast is flattened into a rather generic setting. That’s where Belfast suffers most in the inevitable comparison to Roma—the film rarely feels transportive. It’s never as absorbing as it is enjoyable. During a conversation about the power of cinema, Dench’s character recalls the time she saw Lost Horizon, reminiscing on the persuasive realness of Shangri-La. This vision of Belfast isn’t so memorable. It doesn’t sear itself into one’s mind like Shangri-La, or like Cuarón’s recreation of his home country.
That’s not to say Belfast is visually stunted. The interior shots are a whole different story. Working with Haris Zambarloukos, the cinematographer who shot nearly every Branagh project over the past 14 years, Branagh fosters a rich visual language in the interior scenes. Shots are composed of symmetries and dividing lines, echoing the film’s themes of unity and segregation. To divide, scenes are shot from angles that allow furniture to cut through the frame. A banister, for example, becomes a line of separation between two characters when seen from above. To unite, actors are placed in simple, symmetrical positions, contrasting the tricky divisions with an easy harmony. It’s an effective marriage of aesthetic and theme.
That Belfast takes the time to officiate this marriage while playing to the crowd is worth cherishing. What the film lacks in depth, it makes up for in charm and clarity of purpose. Like Branagh’s takes on Shakespeare, Belfast is as accessible as it is personal—a surefire hit for audiences and Oscar voters alike.