'Belfast' review: Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical film is too guarded In a rare dive into personal territory, Branagh details growing up amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But despite some lovely moments, Belfast feels guarded in its telling.

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Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical 'Belfast' never quite finds its point of view

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Belfast" is a semi-autobiographical drama written and directed by the Irish-born British actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh. It looks back at his early years growing up during the Troubles in late 1960s Northern Ireland. "Belfast" won the top audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now showing in theaters.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It was Federico Fellini who once said that all art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography. He knew of what he spoke, given his fondness for self-portraiture in films like "8 1/2" and especially "Amarcord," his 1973 classic about his own childhood. Cinema history is full of such great memory pieces, like Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," John Boorman's "Hope And Glory" and Terence Davies' "The Long Day Closes," all made by directors looking back with aching tenderness at their early years.

Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast" has already courted such comparisons since its warm reception at festivals earlier this fall. You can see why. This is a rare dive into personal territory from a filmmaker known for directing and often starring in adaptations of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. And Branagh's working-class childhood was certainly more dramatic than most. He was just a young boy when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland, and his home city of Belfast was plunged into sectarian violence. Jude Hill is Branagh's 9-year-old stand-in, Buddy, who's playing outside when fighting breaks out in the street, and Molotov cocktails start flying. Branagh stages this sequence with explosive intensity. But for most of "Belfast," the Troubles hover in the background, a source of anxiety as well as confusion.

Buddy doesn't understand why he and his Protestant family are suddenly supposed to hate their Catholic neighbors. And his decent, tolerant-minded parents don't get it, either. Caitriona Balfe plays his mother, who's done most of the work raising Buddy and his older brother. Jamie Dornan is Buddy's frequently absent father who works in England as a skilled laborer. During one of his father's trips back home, Buddy eavesdrops as his parents argue about their finances and their future. His Pa wants them all to leave Belfast and its troubles behind, but his Ma can't imagine living anywhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELFAST")

CAITRIONA BALFE: (As Ma) You're running around here like the man in the big picture - not paying your taxes and spending all our money on horses.

JAMIE DORNAN: (As Pa) It's to build and trade. I told you it doesn't work a normal way. I told you I had it covered.

BALFE: (As Ma) I was the one who had it covered.

DORNAN: (As Pa) No, you had us paying three years of back tax.

BALFE: (As Ma) To keep you out of bloody jail. We're drowning in debt.

DORNAN: (As Pa) We're near done with the back tax - 10 pound a month for three bloody years. This is a time to think about making a new start.

BALFE: (As Ma) I know nothing else but Belfast.

DORNAN: (As Pa) Exactly. There's a whole world out there. We can give these boys a better chance than we ever had. There's commonwealth countries needing tradesmen. The government will give you assisted passage. We can get the whole family to the other side of the world for 10 pound. We're living in a civil war. And I'm not here to protect my family.

CHANG: It doesn't spoil anything to note that Branagh and his family did end up moving to England, making "Belfast" the movie a fond farewell to his childhood. He wants to capture something of the city's scrappy, resilient spirit, mainly by cramming the soundtrack with classic songs, plus one original tune by that Belfast legend, Van Morrison. There's a nice balance of sweet and tart in Buddy's relationships with his ailing grandfather and sharp-tongued grandmother, nicely played by Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench. There's also a cute subplot involving Buddy's crush on a classmate and his efforts to improve his grades and get her attention.

Although Branagh shot the movie in black and white, he sometimes lets a little color burst into the frame, like when Buddy and his family go to the pictures and watch late '60s hits like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." In showing us these brightly colored images, Branagh foreshadows his own career as a filmmaker and pays tribute to the magic of the movies. These are lovely moments, but they also made me wish that "Belfast" itself were a more moving, transporting experience. I'm still trying to figure out why a story that's clearly so personal to its maker somehow wound up feeling so muted in the telling.

It may have something to do with the pandemic, which made it difficult for the crew to shoot in the real Belfast, forcing them to build a 1960s street set on an airport runway. You can feel the lack of grit and texture in the production design and also in the overly polished sheen of the images. But the problems with "Belfast" aren't just technical. There's an emotional restraint to this movie that should be admirable in theory. Branagh at least doesn't try to jerk sentimental tears. If anything, he's too guarded, as if he were reluctant to probe the past too deeply.

There's also something a little studied about the way Branagh relies on older movies to tell his family's story. At one point, he uses images from the classic Western "High Noon" to underscore the struggle of Buddy's father when a menacing Protestant gang leader tries to recruit him for battle. It's a clever but secondhand reference in a movie that never quite finds its own point of view. All art may be autobiographical, but "Belfast" is a reminder that not all autobiography is necessarily art.

GROSS: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed Kenneth Branagh's new film "Belfast."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Blair Braverman, a writer and sled dog musher who's run the Iditarod in Alaska. She's also written a memoir and survived a harrowing experience on the survivalist reality show "Naked And Afraid." She and her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain have a new book called "Dogs On The Trail." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD NIGHT")

VAN MORRISON: (Singing) As you brush your shoes, stand before the mirror, and you comb your hair, grab your coat and hat. And you walk wet streets, trying to remember all the wild night breezes in your memory ever. And everything looks...

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