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TIFF Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ is a Beautiful Love Letter and An Instant Oscar Frontrunner

Focus Features
Focus Features

Well, it happened. Here in Canada at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, a surefire Oscar player has emerged. Belfast is going to be impossible not to fall in love with, which will likely result in it being cited in multiple categories at the Academy Awards. Not only is the quality there, as this is a delightful and heartwarming drama, but it’s as across the board likable as cinema gets. Rarely do you find a movie that literally is for just about anyone, but this is it. TIFF has thoroughly discovered what Telluride found out a week or so ago. Later on this year, you’ll find out too. This is a magical bit of personal filmmaking on display and a winner.

Belfast is a beautiful love letter from Kenneth Branagh. He makes the film incredibly singular in its relationship to him/his family, but presents it in a way that everyone can engage with. Branagh fills your heart for 90 minutes, never overstaying its welcome. This is the rare movie that you want to be longer. When it ends, moments after a lovely line about acceptance, you’ll be all smiles (and maybe tears).

Focus Features

Set in, you guessed it, Belfast in the late 1960s, this is the story of one tight-knit family. Specifically, it’s about the experience of young son Buddy (Jude Hill). Living in a small house with Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan), as well as his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), they’re a part of a very intimate community. Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) live nearby, making for about as ideal a childhood as possible. That won’t last forever though, as the Troubles begin to brew around them, capturing the attention, fear, and imagination of Buddy. He’s only been concerned with football and the cute girl in class named Catherine (Olive Tennant), but now heavier things are arising.

With tensions between the Catholics and Protestants escalating, Ma and Pa begin to debate leaving Belfast. Pa already works in London most of the time, so maybe getting out of dodge will be better for them? After all, Billy (Colin Morgan) a militant Protestant, is after him. But, Pop has health problems, Buddy doesn’t want to leave, and Ma is trying to hold it all together. Decisions will have to be made, but a lot of time is spent here observing a wonderful and fully realized family unit during tough times.

Focus Features

This cast will make you fall in love with them, almost instantly. Newcomer Jude Hill is a revelation, instantly becoming someone to watch, while Caitriona Balfe gets a big screen vehicle to make you fall in love with her talents. Judi Dench is her reliably great self, while Ciarán Hinds has never been better. Then, there’s Jamie Dornan, who will make you completely re-evaluate him as an actor. He has a magnetism here that’s impossible not to be won over by. The rest of the Belfast cast is solid, but the core family is really where it’s at.

Kenneth Branagh puts his all into this deeply personal project. His writing and direction drip with affection and love for the story he’s telling. Never getting too deep into the religious conflict, he truly sees it through the eyes of what’s clearly his younger self. Branagh even integrates Van Morrison music (including a new song) incredibly well, fueling all of the personal nostalgia into something universal. The pacing is perfect, breezing along for about 90 minutes and never overstaying its welcome. He’s never accomplished something as up and down terrific as this. Plus, the black and white cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos is gorgeous.

Oscar-wise, Belfast is going to be a major player. Obviously, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (both for Branagh) are on the table here. Below the line could just depend on how much the Academy likes the flick, though Morrison seems like a potentially safe bet in Best Original Song. As for the cast, category placement will be important. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds are clearly Supporting, while Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan could easily be pushed Lead or Supporting. All have possibilities. Jude Hill will likely struggle in Best Actor, but it won’t be due to quality.

Focus Features

Belfast is not just a TIFF highlight, but I have a hunch it may well be our Oscar winner for Best Picture. Not only is it good enough to win, it should appeal to every voter in the Academy. Absolutely beautiful and consistently touching, this is something truly special. When it hits theaters from Focus Features later on this year, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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