Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
United Kingdom, 2021. TKBC. Screenplay by Kenneth Branagh. Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. Produced by Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik, Tamar Thomas. Music by Van Morrison. Production Design by Jim Clay. Costume Design by Charlotte Walter. Film Editing by Úna Ní Dhonghaíle.
Kenneth Branagh, long removed from the acclaim of his Henry V days by a series of enjoyable if soulless big-budget directorial efforts, suggests a return to critical favour with his winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (a prize generally given to the Awards Season selection you’re safest to watch with your mom) for this loving, semi-autobiographical examination of his childhood in the titular city. Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) is the pre-teen younger of two sons to hard-working joiner Jamie Dornan (ineffective) and concerned but perpetually glamorous housewife Caitriona Balfe (decorative), the child’s primary concerns his matchbox cars and his puppy love with the pretty girl at school with whom he competes for the top scholarly place in their class. On the streets, however, the city is under a dark threatening cloud that erupts in the summer of 1969 when anti-Catholic riots see his neighbourhood destroyed, which puts his father under heat from tinpot dictator Colin Morgan who warns him, as head of one of the few Protestant families on his street, that Dornan is either with the good guys or against them. Buddy enjoys time in the warmth of the bosom of his loving grandparents (Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench) while his parents struggle with the quandary of what to do: Dornan has a great job offer in London that could take them away from a potentially deadly situation, but that would mean leaving behind their whole lives, the people they know and love and the place that has defined who they are to each other and themselves.
For the audience, there’s no doubt that the family have to move and, if anyone knows the least bit about Branagh’s biography, the ending is inevitable, which means there needs to be tension placed somewhere else for us to really join these characters as they work through this difficult but ultimately sensible choice. To do so would be to give us a sense of Belfast and a reasonably palpable feel for its streets and people, but Branagh instead relies on a series of increasingly irritating photographic and dramatic cliches, combining a G-rated Trainspotting with Roma (right down to the crisp monochrome cinematography), but instead of creating Cuaron’s charismatic and spontaneous images, fills each shot with no end of period nostalgia contrivances and then overlays the soundtrack with yet another Van Morrison song to compensate for the lack of depth. Balfe has some wonderful moments as the exasperated mother, but the script undercuts her performance by giving her character very little context, the grandparents are Dornan’s parents, not hers, and we know nothing about her life, her past, or who she was before she was defined to these people solely as wife and mother; her being the voice of resistance when the opportunity for change comes up is hard to understand because it has no narrative foundation (and so Branagh gives her and Dornan a musical number instead, which feels like it was cut in from a different film).
Hill does well enough in the lead but Branagh, in his desire to make sure we appreciate the spark of genius that has been with him since birth, pushes him to do Child Star acting, close-ups of his bright eyes telling us of the wonders of the world through his viewpoint, and the tweeness of his innocence is so canned that it feels like a Terence Davies movie was remade by a Hollywood studio. The few moments that work, and work beautifully, involve (and there’s no surprise here) Dench and Hinds, the parts of the story that are genuinely painful for the director and which he gives no unnecessary decoration to: Dench sitting on the bus telling Buddy of her childhood love of movies, and her dreams of a place called Shangri-La, shows this master performer wiping up the screen with everyone around her, and the affection that the child has for his grandfather is genuinely touching without ever descending into manipulation.
Academy Award: Best Original Screenplay
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Ciaran Hinds); Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench); Best Director (Kenneth Branagh); Best Sound; Best Original Song (“Down To Joy”)
Golden Globe Award: Best Screenplay
Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Supporting Actor (Jamie Dornan); Best Supporting Actor (Ciaran Hinds); Best Supporting Actress (Catriona Balfe); Best Director (Kenneth Branagh); Best Original Song (“Down To Joy”)
Screen Actors Guild Award Nominations: Outstanding Motion Picture Cast; Best Supporting Actress (Caitriona Balfe)
Toronto International Film Festival: 2021