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Rob Youngson/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Belfast (2021)

In a movie about people whose lives are torn apart by terrorism, it’s pretty bad to reduce your audience to rooting for the bombs, but here it’s the only rational choice. The only innovation in Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is to make the tax situation of one family as important as the sectarian violence busting out all over. Otherwise no cliché of the Troubles or life in ’60s Ireland is forgotten. Critics who don’t know the city of Belfast are salivating over this movie. Critics who do are finding praise sticking in the throat.

The opening sequence of a rowdy street with a good 30 people getting involved as small Buddy’s (Jude Hill) Ma (Caitriona Balfe) calls him in for tea, quickly establishes the friendly, nosy tone of the place. But immediately the idyll is over, as a group of masked men smash windows and threaten the Catholic families on the street. Overnight the paving stones and burned-out cars are fashioned into a barricade, staffed around the clock by local fathers who literally march around holding torches. Buddy’s Da (Jamie Dornan, a local boy who is finally growing into his true ability as an actor) is exempt due to his work keeping him in England, though he travels back and forth at the drop of a hat. There’s an older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie) and girl cousins, most importantly Moira (Lara McDonnell), but they are sidekicks to Buddy’s wide-eyed adventures in a rapidly collapsing city. These adventures mostly involve homework, the movies, family gatherings and occasional shoplifting with Moira from stores where the owner knows them by name. After school he stays with Granny (Judi Dench) and Pops (Ciaran Hinds, wonderful as always), who give wise advice on homework and also love. For is Buddy not in love with a clever Catholic girl in his class at school? But of course! And is it not amazing that all his friends and family are open-minded, non-prejudiced people who are determined to keep above the sectarian violence exploding around them? Well, duh. The laws of schmaltz demand it.

It’s not all sickening; clips from the movies Buddy loves are charming (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!” “One Million Years B.C.!”), and the sound design gives the story a surprisingly organic feel, but there’s enough cheese here to build a second moon. As with “The Survivor,” the choice to film in absolutely gorgeous black-and-white repeats the lie that this is a story about ancient history and the struggles depicted here have no home in the modern world. This makes the color drone shots of tourist hotspots in modern Belfast which bookend the film even more jarring. The choice of local boy/frothing reactionary Van Morrison to do the music when a local boy/film composer of the caliber of David Holmes is right there is further proof that Mr. Branagh was not interested in anything other than self-congratulatory nostalgia.

A more modern story would also have given Ma and Granny names. Only referring to them from Buddy’s point of view means this movie fails the Bechdel test, which is especially galling since Ma is so incredibly important. Ms. Balfe’s relaxed self-confidence combined with a sharp tongue single-handedly make the movie worth watching, not least for the teary monologue when she explains the value she puts on bringing up her children in Belfast. For her it’s more vital to give her boys a place where their safety is due to everyone knowing and liking them than in providing a garden for them to play in. Mr. Branagh even gives Da a speech thanking her for the incredible work’s she done in raising the boys. But Ma doesn’t have her own income and those tax troubles won’t solve themselves. After the fourth tax-themed conversation you’re hoping friendly bombs will come give this story a more interesting ending. Alas, all you have is another woman sacrificing her happiness for the future of a little man.

Mr. Branagh should go back and reshoot the movie to focus on Buddy’s relationship with Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), a mild-mannered neighbor who virtually overnight turns into a terrorist leader with no qualms at holding a gun to a child’s head. A child’s-eye view of how easy it is for ordinary adults to slide from tolerance and good cheer into racism and hatred would be a truer Belfast story, if not the heartwarming awards fodder Mr. Branagh was aiming for. What he’s made instead is tasteless in the extreme. Expect it to clean up come awards season.

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