From film versions of Shakespeare plays like Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V as well as adaptations of Agatha Christie novels Murder On The Orient Express and the upcoming Death on the Nile, to studio fare like Thor and the live-action Cinderella remake, Kenneth Branagh has dabbled in a plethora of film genres to the point where he has become as prolific a director as he is an actor. This year, he releases a film that’s smaller and more personal to him in Belfast, a film that not only won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but also has cemented itself as a prime Oscar contender this awards season despite its flaws thanks to strong performances from its acting ensemble, gorgeous black and white cinematography, and confident direction that tells its story with powerful intimacy and heart.
Belfast takes place in 1969, where child Buddy (Jude Hill) lives with his Protestant family in a district of the titular city that’s small to the point where everybody knows everybody. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) often travels out of town for carpentry work with the hopes of paying off a hefty tax bill, while Ma (Caitriona Balfe) takes care of him and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie), with assistance from Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) in various ways around the house, whether it’s providing Ma with company while her husband is away, or to accompany the kids to the theater and teach them important words of wisdom.
And said wisdom is especially necessary for the family to live by, because as soon as the film begins, Buddy finds his neighborhood has become a battleground for civil unrest between the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland. Tensions between the groups become so high, Buddy’s parents are left wondering whether or not to flee the country for a better life, while fellow Protestant Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) goes to extreme lengths to coerce Buddy’s father into fighting for their cause. Meanwhile, Buddy finds himself under the influence of a cousin who recruits him into a gang of mischievous thieves, and internally wondering what side he should take in the ongoing war, and how he can be a good person during the tumultuous times in which he lives, all while bonding with Pop, pining for a female classmate and finding escapism on the cinema screen.
As a filmmaker who has made a name for himself directing epics, it’s interesting to see Branagh take an intimate approach to his semi-autobiographical story, and the love he has for his homeland can be felt throughout the entirety of the film’s runtime thanks to its monochromatic visual style. There’s a certain wistfulness to the film’s well-composed shot compositions that frame Buddy in the foreground playing his toys or watching Star Trek on television while his parents argue about their money struggles in the background for all to see, almost as if these are memories Branagh has of his youth, and still remembers to this day. Meanwhile, a use of high contrast and shadows make their presence known in the more ominous scenes of the film, such as when policemen patrol the streets of Belfast at night, or when Buddy listens to his Protestant pastor bellowing an impassioned but frightening sermon.
Another way Belfast conveys a longing for the past is through the heart Branagh has put into writing the dialogue between his characters, such as in scenes where Pop and Granny reflect on past events that are menial to others, but unforgettable for them after all their decades together, as well as a poignant moment where Granny tells Buddy about the film Lost Horizon, after which he asks her if she ever ventured to Shangri-La. Granny ganders out the window in quiet nostalgia along with her response, as if she’s wondering where her life would be if she ever left Belfast, or thinking about what her city looked like in years gone by.
There is also an endearing sincerity abound in the film’s script, and that comes through in the performances from Branagh’s ensemble. Newcomer Jude Hill excels in his first on-screen role from a visual standpoint, as the confused horror on his face matches ours as he watches his neighborhood turn into a warzone before his very eyes, which light up later with an endearing excitement as soon as his father speaks of going to the picturehouse.
Buddy’s relatability extends to a later scene when he laments about the difficulty of his math homework, but thankfully Pop is there to give him encouragement and support. Ciarián Hinds does that and more in an awards-worthy performance where he delivers Pop’s elderly, wise guidance to Buddy about people who don’t understand Irish accents, good-natured advice about how to approach women, and even a humorous tip on how to get by on his math homework in a way that’s so natural, audiences are left wondering if Hinds himself was taught similar lessons in his life growing up in Ireland’s capital.
There’s a lot to like about the film, but there are times where it feels aimless in its plotting. The movie goes from one moody scene to a lighthearted one at the turn of a dime with no real motivation, robbing select moments of an emotional punch. In fact, Belfast is dedicated to the people who left the city and stayed in it during this period of social and economical strife, as well as those who lost their lives during the conflict. As well meaning as that is, it’s worth noting that the film doesn’t spend time on the more harrowing aspects of the civil war involving those who died in the riots, and as effective as the black and white cinematography is in adding feelings of nostalgia to the narrative, it’s really clean and sharp for its subject matter.
But audiences have been through unprecedented turmoil in the past eighteen months, so it’s understandable why Branagh wanted to take a heartfelt approach to a story that’s important for him to tell, and Belfast may be schmaltzy in sporadic parts, but is overall a compelling coming-of-age story, and a sentimental look back at a country during an era that’s not unlike our own. Audiences will be endeared by Buddy as a character and want to see him and his family take the right road toward a good life, and feel like proverbial flies on a wall while he eavesdrops on a private conversation his parents have about their uncertain future. It’s affecting in its intimacy and messages to please any and all crowds that watch it, and that’s why Belfast is worthy of being in the discussion for more than one Oscar this awards season.