It’s not hard to see why Kenneth Branagh’s funny, touching and vital “Belfast,” only in theaters, is the front-runner for the best picture Oscar. There may be bigger, costlier, showier films this year, but none cuts a clearer, truer path to the heart than “Belfast.”
This memory tale of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) growing up in Northern Ireland’s turbulent capital city is sculpted from Branagh’s own life as a son of Belfast, where everyone knows his name. Hill, 11, a competitive dancer turned actor, delivers one of the best and most beguiling performances by a child ever captured on film.
Branagh shows how Buddy’s happy childhood, and by extension his, was shattered in 1969 by rioting in streets. The Troubles, a conflict Buddy barely understands between Protestants loyal to the U.K. and Catholics eager to rebel and join Ireland, set neighbor against neighbor.
Buddy’s Protestant parents, played to perfection by Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, wanted to live in peace. But the shocking brutality, vividly filmed by Branagh, forced the family to leave their beloved home for the safety of England. The decision devastated Buddy.
And that interrupted childhood is the core of this gentle giant of a movie. For all the violence, it’s the bond between Buddy and his Ma and Pa, his older brother (Lewis McAskie), and his grandparents, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds—both sublime— that holds you in thrall.
Reports say Balfe, Dornan, Dench and Hinds—each of Irish descent— will all compete for supporting Oscars. If so, good luck picking a winner. Five-time nominee Dench, who won for “Shakespeare in Love,” is such a witty, wicked wonder as Gran that she’s impossible to resist.
Hinds, a master performer too long underrated, is hilarious and heartbreaking. And Dornan, free of the s&m sex trap of the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy, builds on his virtuoso turn on “The Fall” to show an actor of ferocity and feeling as he invests Pa, often absent from home for construction work in England, with simmering emotion and quiet strength.
Balfe, the radiant star of “Outlander,” is—in a word—magnificent. She finds revelatory layers in this mother who is held at gunpoint but still holds her family together even as war and trauma pull them apart. If you think Balfe and Dornan, both former models, are incongruously beautiful to play working-class parents, you underestimate how Buddy sees them.
And “Belfast,” shot in black-and-white during lockdown, sees the world through Buddy’s eyes. There’s no way to watch “Belfast” without letting Buddy’s family become your own. Music floods the soundtrack. There are eight classic songs from Belfast firebrand Van Morrison, plus a newbie (“Down to Joy”) and exhilarating scenes of parents and grandparents dancing.
“Belfast” belongs to Branagh, 60, who doesn’t act in the film but whose presence is felt in every frame. Except for a shot of Buddy reading a comic book about Thor— Branagh directed Marvel’s 2011 film version—there is no reference to the A-lister he’d become from 1989’s “Henry V” to his upcoming reprise as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in “Death On the Nile.”
And yet the influence of the arts is palpable. The screen lights up with color when Buddy’s family sits down to watch the dinosaurs and Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.” and the flying car of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” or attend a stage performance of “A Christmas Carol.”
It took half a century for Branagh, who was knighted in 2012, to put his young life on screen. The wait was worth it. If anything, the movie feels too short at 97 minutes, rushing by when we most want it to let the space between words resonate.
Above all, “Belfast” is infused with love for the home Branagh had to leave behind. It’s his best and most bracingly personal film, a transporting, coming-of-age classic that’s relatable to anyone who’s ever had to say goodbye to childhood.