Up until about 15 minutes into Belfast, it never occurred to me that memories were able to be in black and white. I’m not talking about those shown in fiction, but my own personal memories.
That director Kenneth Brannagh’s movie had me thinking like this speaks to it’s power as what will surely be an Oscar front runner in the next few months.
Based off of Brannagh’s childhood growing up in the titular town during the late 1960s, the film centers around an 8 year old boy named Buddy. Instantly lovable but not entirely innocent, Buddy is entering the 1st grade during the turmoil of something of a civil war. It is (from what I can tell, since I knew nothing about the history going in) the catholics vs the protestants.
Almost immediately, we see how much of Buddy’s homelife is scaled down and closed in, made up of what seems like a ghetto. This is played up a notch when you realize that Brannagh shows a lot of close up shots. The house Buddy lives in is indeed small when you realize he lives with his “Ma” (Caitriona Balfe), “Pa” (Jamie Dornan), brother Will (Lewis McAskie), and grandparents, “Pop” (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench).
Of course, Buddy has more on his mind than the current political turmoil. He is much more focused on getting good grades for the only truly important reason that exists for an 8 year old: to impress a girl. In this day and age, kids would sit based on their grades, having the students with the highest score sit closer up front (which is so baffling to me I had to almost refrain from laughing out loud in the theater). This of course means Buddy needs to up his game if he wants to sit near the smartest (and prettiest) girl in class, Catherine (Olive Tennant).
Still, Buddy is curious about the current events, not knowing what the big deal is about being either Catholic or Protestant (there is a scene where he discusses this with his cousin that gives him very little results). Since his “Pa” is not home a lot due to work, he resorts to getting all the information he needs from his Grandparents, particularly “Pop”.
There have been a lot of comparisons of this film to 2018’s Roma, another film based off the childhood of the filmmaker (Alfonso Cuarón), and also in black and white. While that is indeed justified, there is another film I am surprised to find few people comparing it to, and that is the classic Cinema Paradiso (1988). In that film, the main character (“Toto”) is shown growing up with his main form of escapism being the cinema. The same is true for Buddy (albeit not as much as “Toto”.) With the exception of old school Star Trek episodes, Buddy is seen watching a truckload of classics, both in the theater (one of the few times the film is in color) and at home. These include the likes of the Raquel Welch 1968 flick One Million Years B.C. (“Now I see why you picked this movie.”, Ma says to Pa), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), The Man who shot Liberty Valance (1962), and (most notably) the classic 1952 western High Noon.
This is indeed the type of film that could garner the most nominations during the Oscar season, and it is strongly likely that the film will get some in the acting categories (most likely supporting). While it is never advisable to count out Judi Dench (who is wonderful in basically everything she is in), my personal vote would go towards Hinds as Buddy’s Grandpa. A good majority of the laughs in the film come from him (such as his teaching buddy how to do long division) as well as the good amount of the film’s heart. A shout out also to Balfe as Buddy’s mom. You will ache and feel for her, not to mention fear her a bit.
Without question, the film rests on the tiny shoulders of 8 year old Jude Hill as Buddy. It is very rare for a child actor to be recognized at the Oscars (it has been decades since they had the Juvenile Oscar handed out), especially in the lead categories. That said, anyone who is not bewitched by this little kid is in serious jeopardy of not being human.
Parents, if you kids are able to stand a B&W film, this is mostly okay for those middle school aged and up. It has it’s share of violent, thematic moments, plus some swearing (one F bomb). Other than that, nothing else to worry about.
Though the film does have some iffy spots (the last line of the film seemed a bit too on the nose for me), Belfast is still indeed one of the more charming films of the year. This is especially due to the film’s soundtrack, spearheaded by the great Van Morrison. I am still in search of all the songs the that are used, and am shocked and appalled it that there is little help online at the moment to get a playlist going of the soundtrack to this movie gem.