It’s easy to understand why Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” which is still playing in theatres, is the front-runner for the Academy Award for Best Picture. This year’s films may be larger, more expensive, and showier, but none cuts a straighter, more honest road to the heart than “Belfast.”
Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9-year-old boy living up in Northern Ireland’s tumultuous capital city, is based on Branagh’s own experiences growing up in Belfast, where everyone knows his name. Hill, an 11-year-old competitive dancer turned actor, gives one of the greatest and most captivating performances ever seen on film by a child.
In 1969, riots in the streets wrecked Buddy’s joyful upbringing, and by implication, his own. The Troubles pitted neighbor against neighbor, a war Buddy scarcely comprehends between Protestants loyal to the United Kingdom and Catholics ready to revolt and join Ireland.
Buddy’s Protestant parents, portrayed brilliantly by Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, want a peaceful life for their children. However, the family was compelled to flee their cherished home for the safety of England due to the appalling savagery, which was brilliantly captured by Branagh. Buddy was heartbroken by the choice.
And it is this shattered childhood that is at the heart of this gentle behemoth of a film. Despite the brutality, you’re captivated by Buddy’s relationship with his Ma and Pa, his elder brother (Lewis McAskie), and his grandparents, portrayed by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, respectively.
Balfe, Dornan, Dench, and Hinds, all of Irish heritage, are expected to contend for supporting Oscars, according to reports. If that’s the case, good luck selecting a winner. Dench, a five-time candidate who won for “Shakespeare in Love,” is difficult to resist as Gran because she’s a funny, wicked delight.
Hinds is both humorous and poignant, a superb performer who has been underappreciated for far too long. And Dornan, free of the s&m sex trap of the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy, expands on his virtuoso portrayal in “The Fall” to display an actor of ferocity and passion as he infuses Pa with seething intensity and quiet power.
In a word, Balfe, the brilliant star of “Outlander,” is wonderful. She discovers surprising dimensions in this woman, who is imprisoned at gunpoint yet manages to keep her family together despite conflict and suffering. If you believe former models Balfe and Dornan are incongruously attractive to play working-class parents, you’re underestimating Buddy’s opinion.
During the lockdown, “Belfast” is shot in black-and-white and shows the world through Buddy’s eyes. It’s impossible to watch “Belfast” without becoming a member of Buddy’s family. The soundtrack is flooded with music. Eight classic Van Morrison songs are included, as well as a new song (“Down to Joy”) and exciting shots of parents and grandparents dancing.
Branagh, 60, is the star of “Belfast,” and while he does not appear in the picture, his presence can be felt in every shot. There’s no mention of the A-lister Buddy had become from 1989’s “Henry V” to his upcoming reprise as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in “Death On the Nile,” except for a shot of Buddy reading a comic book about Thor— Branagh directed Marvel’s 2011 film adaptation—no there’s mention of the A-lister he’d become from 1989’s “Henry V” to his upcoming reprise as Belgian detective Hercule Po
Nonetheless, the arts have a strong effect. When Buddy’s family settles down to see the dinosaurs and Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.” and the flying automobile in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” or attend a theatre presentation of “A Christmas Carol,” the screen comes alive with color.
Branagh, who was knighted in 2012, spent half a century putting his early life on television. It was well worth the wait. In fact, at 97 minutes, the film feels too short, speeding by when we most want to hear the silence between sentences.
Above all, “Belfast” is imbued with affection for Branagh’s home. It’s his greatest and most intimate picture, a moving coming-of-age classic that will resonate with anybody who has had to say goodbye to their youth.