Tuesday 18 January 2022

Cribs: "Belfast"

No getting around or past it:
Belfast is Kenneth Branagh's Roma, or rather what Kenneth Branagh would like to think of as his Roma. It could well be the case that we have Alfonso Cuarón's modern classic - that dizzying mix of heart-on-sleeve emotion and virtuosic technical smarts that dazzled the world in the years before things got germy - to thank for 2022's unusually backward-looking awards crop; well, that and studio chiefs turning to their go-to directors during the pandemic's first months with the question "got anything?". Branagh was originally set to hand over Death on the Nile but, you know, Armie Hammer; to fill a gap in the schedule, he apparently started ransacking his memory banks much as you and I used lockdown to tackle that cupboard we'd been meaning to clear. Belfast is blatant in its cribbing: it's there in the sheeny black-and-white photography (by Haris Zambarloukos), the stripmining of its maker's homelife as it was circa 1969 (with moppet Jude Hill in the Branagh role of "Buddy"), and the ultra-choreographed negotiation of Belfast's backstreets as the Troubles first flared up. The resemblance, granted, is largely superficial, but then Belfast is almost wholly superficial, possibly the most superficial film to which Branagh has signed his name. (And I've seen Dead Again.) What's headscramblingly weird about it is that this is a notional passion project that gives the impression of having been completely dashed off - a film of brief, bitty scenes that barely introduce the key players, never credibly nail down the political context, and refuse to coalesce into anything substantial, let alone sear themselves on the imagination. Bungled by indifferent staging and slaphappy cutting, its setpieces survive as little more than flubbed anecdotes. If it is in any way comparable to Roma, it's a Roma devoid of the ambition and weight, a Roma that cheerily wipes itself from the memory as it goes along. This is the Roma that deserves to get buried by streaming service algorithms.

Try if you can to get past the level of calculation in play here. This is a film that cannot resist cutting to a screen-filling close-up of Hill whenever the wee lad is about to say something cute; that casts Judi Dench as a feisty granny who has one - count it, one - characteristic to play (feisty); and that fills in any gaps in the director's memory with easy-reach pop-cultural ephemera (full-colour inserts of Raquel Welch and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Van Morrison songs. Even if you can set all that aside - if you can find some reason to engage with the film rather than the thinking behind it - you may be surprised by how much it resembles a West End stage show of somebody's childhood. Anything personal or specific has been sacrificed in the name of universality. (On last week's Wittertainment, Branagh admitted very little of it was shot on the streets of Belfast: it shows.) Inside Buddy's house, the blocking proves alienatingly eccentric: why is the lad's elder brother set to standing motionless in the corner of the frame while the rest of the family are sat at the kitchen table? On the streets (and I wonder whether this was a Covid issue): were Branagh's neighbours really out in the road all day long? Half of Ireland appears to have been stationed on the family's doorstep; the movie deserves but a single gong over the coming weeks, that for Most Superfluous Extras. Well, look, you might say these are Branagh's memories, and who am I to argue with them. The trouble is these memories never convinced me as the business of a movie - or, rather, they looked too much like the business of a hackneyed TV movie, and never enough like the lingering, distinctive, heartfelt life experience this project must at some point have been intending to preserve. (For one, nothing's allowed to linger - the film's barely a daydream at 90 minutes.) I'll give it a couple of scenes with Ciaran Hinds as the boy's grandfather, which get within touching distance of gravity, and a last-reel revival of Love Affair's "Everlasting Love", a great record to hear in any context. As for the rest, and it pains me to write this as a fan of Branagh's earlier, properly imaginative history films: this hopelessly misbegotten dadfilm, this hollow shell gathering undeserved laurels, made me wonder if certain of my colleagues weren't right all along about Peter's Friends.

Belfast opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment