Review: ‘Belfast’ is a heartfelt coming-of-age story with Best Picture potential

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Belfast'

Black-and-white Oscar contenders can be tough for critics to recommend to moviegoers, but occasionally one is filled with such heart that it’s destined to be a crowd pleaser.

Enter Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film “Belfast,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently in movie theaters nationwide. Branagh blends childhood nostalgia with political awakening for a wonderful coming-of-age story with enough heart and chops to go the distance for Best Picture.

It loosely follows Branagh’s own memories growing up in a blue-collar family in Belfast, Ireland during the tumultuous Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in 1969. The story is told through the eyes of an impressionable young boy named Buddy, who learns life lessons as his neighborhood becomes a literal battleground between religious sects.

The cast is exceptional from top to bottom, including the most glamorous parents you can imagine, including Jamie Dornan, who sheds his “Fifty Shades of Grey” kinkiness to play a hardworking father, and Caitriona Balfe, who was great as Christian Bale’s wife in “Ford v. Ferrari” (2019) with a touching closing scene receiving a racetrack gift from Matt Damon.

Still, it’s Buddy’s grandparents who steal the show thanks to Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”) and Ciarán Hinds (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”). Their aging romance is so sweet that you will turn to your spouse and say, “Let’s grow old together like them.” In a world of grownups telling Buddy what to do, Pop consistently asks the boy, “What do you want?”

Enter child actor Jude Hill, who personifies adorable as he tries to get good grades so he can move up to the front of the class to sit next to his childhood crush. He’s occasionally led astray by his troublemaking cousin (Lara McDonnell) for delinquent scenes that recall Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959), but he is a sweet boy with a good heart.

Buddy is clearly Branagh’s conduit, often putting the camera at the eye-level of a child. Even when we’re not in his P.O.V., the camera follows Buddy as he hides around the corner of the dining room to watch his parents discuss taxes. They don’t know he’s there, just like they don’t know the camera is there, telling the story from Buddy’s perspective.

It’s most self-reflexive when Buddy goes to movies, singing along to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “The Ballad of High Noon.” These scenes are not only catnip for cinephiles who get the references, they show the magic of moviegoing like “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), providing a family-friendly escape from the social and political upheaval around them.

Through it all, there’s only one scene that feels forced as Buddy’s parents sing karaoke to “Everlasting Love,” which made for an exuberant movie trailer, but feels odd after the tragedy of the preceding scene. The song also feels like an outlier on a soundtrack filled with the music of Belfast-native Van Morrison, including eight classics and one new song.

While there’s been behind-the-scenes chatter about Morrison’s recent conspiracy theories (i.e. Eric Clapton), the film’s on-screen political commentary paints a powerful religious turf war that’s extremely relevant today as lawmakers mock their elected Muslim colleagues. To this day, we’ve still only had two Catholic presidents: John F. Kennedy and Joe Biden.

Alas, we aren’t as advanced as we think, which makes Buddy’s untainted childhood perspective all the more valuable. It also explains why the film is shot in black-and-white, separating the nostalgia of our youth from the color images of adult bookends, opening with present-day Belfast and dedicating the final images to “the ones who never left.”

To create this visual look, Branagh reunites with his “Thor” cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. It’s ironic that Branagh will be competing against the black-and-white “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” a Shakespeare adaptation similar to Branagh’s Oscar nominations for “Henry V” (1989) and “Hamlet” (1996) directing himself like Sir Laurence Olivier.

“Belfast” and “Macbeth” lead a resurgence of black-and-white Oscar contenders with “The French Dispatch” (Wes Anderson’s preciousness is niche compared to “Belfast”), “C’mon C’mon” (emotional like “Kramer vs. Kramer” but indie like “Stranger Than Paradise”) and “Passing” (the only film where black-and-white makes more thematic sense than “Belfast”).

Could one prevail at the Oscars? It’s an uphill battle as we haven’t had a black-and-white Best Picture winner since “The Artist” (2011). Many have tried, from Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (2013) to Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” (2018), which settled for Best Director.

Many will draw parallels between “Belfast” and “Roma,” but Branagh’s work has more popcorn appeal, which is why it has a better shot at Best Picture, unlike “Roma” which was too arthouse for the middle-of-the-road Academy, which chose “Green Book” instead.

Just like the Academy swung back to the safer “Green Book” (2018) after crowning the edgier “Moonlight” (2016) and “The Shape of Water” (2017), this year’s pendulum may swing back to “Belfast” after the edgier “Parasite” (2019) and “Nomadland” (2020).

Such a winner may ruffle the feathers of a few Twitter contrarians who think “Belfast” is too cute by half, but at least audiences won’t walk out of the theater further convinced that Academy voters are out of touch with mainstream moviegoers: “Man, those artsy critics told me to go see ‘Spencer,’ but it stunk! At least that ‘Belfast’ movie made me smile.”

In other words, it would be nice to crown a Best Picture winner that gets over a 90% audience score, you know, like they used to all the time before we all got so damn cynical. After nearly two years of pandemic heartache and political strife, it’s time for a palette cleanser like “Belfast” or “CODA” that finds the beating heart of humanity amid the chaos.

5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow WTOP on Twitter and Instagram to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2021 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up