Sir Kenneth Branagh has spent over three decades proving that he is more than just a thespian. Having trained at London’s Royal Academy of the Dramatic Art, where he eventually took over as President of the institution in 2015, Branagh has earned a trio of acting nominations from the Academy Awards, most recently for his spectacular supporting turn in 2011’s overlooked gem, My Week with Marilyn. Those familiar with Branagh tend to recognize him for his acting and understandably so. In fact, it’s been 33 years since he’s earned a Best Director Nomination for his debut film Henry V, and a quarter-century since his only screenwriting nomination for 1996’s Hamlet. Yet, it appears as though Branagh is determined to remind us all of his robust artistic skillset with this year’s early Best Picture frontrunner, Belfast. In this upcoming awards season juggernaut, Branagh turns the lens inward with a semi-autobiographical account of his late-1960s childhood in the Northern Ireland capital where his family finds itself caught in the middle of a tumultuous religious war.
11-year-old newcomer Jude Hill stars as Buddy, a young Protestant boy growing up on a close-knit and predominantly Catholic street in 1969 Belfast. With his father (Jamie Dornan) away most of the time working in the U.K., Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe) is tasked with watching over the boy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie). Before long, a violent religious war finds its way to the family’s doorstep when a Protestant militia warns them to either join in their crusade of forcing the Catholics out of Belfast, or face dire consequences.
Every year, all eyes pay close attention to the announcement of the TIFF People’s Choice Award winner. It’s a crowning achievement that’s guaranteed to bring with it some serious Oscar clout. After garnering the coveted award at this year’s festival, Belfast was thrusted to the top of the awards season mountain. Unfortunately, though, Kenneth Branagh’s latest endeavor fails to fill its enormous shoes. Boasting a mere 97-minute running time, a rarity for typical Best Picture contenders, Belfast suffers from a serious lack of development across all of its plotlines. What you see is what you get, it’s a rather superficial endeavor that lacks any real surprises or spontaneity. This is one of those unique instances where a film would have benefited from a beefier running time.
Despite an inability to live up to its massive hype, Belfast is by no means a big-screen slouch. Branagh’s latest provides enough memorable moments to stay relevant. Most notably from Caitriona Balfe, Buddy’s mom, who delivers in a painfully emotional and earnest Oscar-worthy scene where she faces the reality of possibly fleeing the only home that she’s ever known in order to keep her family safe. And in addition to a collection of impactful performances, Belfast also does a stellar job of incorporating music into the film. Toe-tapping along to the cadence of the movie makes for a smooth and easy ride. Sir Kenneth Branagh’s career work speaks for itself as a lengthy catalog filled with solid titles spanning more than three decades. While Belfast stands alongside Branagh’s greatest cinematic accomplishments, it’s also an imperfect film that’s unable to shed any new insight into the religious tensions that continue to plague Northern Ireland to this day.