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Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast' is a triumph and Jamie Dornan is destined for Oscar glory

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A picture of Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciarán Hinds in "Belfast."
Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciarán Hinds in "Belfast." Focus Features.
  • "Belfast" was written and directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Kenneth Branagh.

  • It is the "Thor" director's best work yet.

  • Stars Judi Dench and Jamie Dornan also feature in the film.

Kenneth Branagh's new film "Belfast" is loud and knowing, but there is one impressively deft moment near the beginning of the film where our young protagonist Buddy (the charming newcomer Jude Hill), is perched on a curb. He is quietly reading a copy of the Marvel comic Thor.

As many commentators pointed out after the film's roaring premiere at TIFF in September where it won the coveted audience award, Branagh has personal ties to the Marvel superhero. He directed the 2011 film "Thor," the first big-screen adaptation starring Chris Hemsworth. This clever reference is one of the few moments where it is made clear that the story of Buddy and "Belfast" is also, in part, the story of Branagh.

The year is 1969, and the emotional, loosely autobiographical story begins with Belfast, Branagh's childhood home city, gripped by The Troubles, a long and deadly conflict between mostly Protestant unionists determined for Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom and Catholic republicans desperate to break away and create a united Ireland.

On Buddy's side of the city, Protestant and Catholic families had long lived together in harmony, but the increasing violence and intimidation - in this case, Protestants eager to clear Catholics out of their neighborhood - has shattered all tradition and forced families - even Protestant ones like Buddy's and Branagh's - to relocate in search of peace.

But it is never easy to leave the place one might call home even when it no longer feels particularly welcoming. What about family, identity, history, community, solidarity? These are themes "Belfast" explores through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy as his parents, portrayed by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe (a distinctively beautiful Irish couple), decide they must leave their home and what's left of their family for what they hope is safety and prosperity in England.

What's Hot: Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan

A picture of Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in "Belfast."
Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in "Belfast." Focus Features.

"Belfast" opens with grand, sweeping shots of landmarks around the Northern Irish capital presented in color. And when the scene is set, the screen shrinks into taut shades of black and white through which the rest of the story is told.

The digital black and white photography is luscious and will instantly remind viewers of Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón's similarly autobiographical black and white epic "Roma," which swept the Academy Awards in 2019. But Branagh's film is a lot less ambitious. There is violence in the film but it is only shown in glimpses. And the role of Britain and British soldiers in the conflict is only ever implied, never confronted.

Branagh isn't really interested in the political projects of British colonialism or Irish republicanism but rather how sectarianism affects the home.

At times, this can make the film's action sequences feel a little flat even when the lives of our protagonists are in immediate danger. But the audience receives its hearty fill in the back-alleys and doorways of the city's terraced houses where the kids play with their footballs and the adults chew the fat.

The film's script - also written by Branagh - is sharp, witty, and expertly straddles what could be described as dark Irish humor and the codes of what audiences deem acceptable in contemporary entertainment. At one point, for example, Judi Dench, who is in fine form as Buddy's grandmother alongside the Irish great Ciarán Hinds who plays the grandfather, describes the absurdity of the divide between Catholics and Protestants by talking about the close friendship she has managed to foster with an Asian woman a couple of doors down who made her a curry that kept her in a "nappy for a week."

Buddy's family are a struggling but resilient bunch. Dornan - unfortunately, best known for his work in the "Fifty Shades" series - is the young patriarch, but as soon as we meet him it is clear that he is losing control over the direction of his family's life.

He is back and forth between Belfast and England, where he has found work. But the taxman, as well as the Protestant heavies who require his "cash or commitment" to the sectarian movement, have started to run him down. This crushing weight is visible on Dornan's face and he carries it throughout the film in a performance that is uniquely physical and emotional. He is matched only by Balfe who stays in Belfast with the kids and tries to keep them out of harm's way.

As the film's climax approaches, the pair lean on each other more and their performances fold into one unified front against the war on their doorstep. Near the end, they even share the dance floor for a rendition of Love Affair's "Everlasting," which will play poorly with a more reluctant, hardened audience, but I found it to be deeply moving.

Verdict: "Belfast" will be a certain awards favorite

A picture from Kenneth Branagh's film "Belfast."
The cast of "Belfast," written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Focus Features

Earlier this week, Variety reported that Focus Features, the studio releasing "Belfast," will give the film a widescale awards campaign with Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan submitted in supporting acting categories and newcomer Jude Hill as a leading actor.

I also expect the film to garner significant awards attention for its writing and direction. Branagh - who was last seen on screen in Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" and has enjoyed one of the most acclaimed careers across the screen and theater as a writer, director, and actor - has never won an Oscar. That's quite a shocking omission considering Branagh has successfully adapted Shakespeare multiple times.

Nonetheless, "Belfast" feels like a homecoming of sorts for Branagh. A tribute to the people of his city that have and continue to endure devastating political instability. And that's a narrative even the Academy can't ignore.

"Belfast" screens at the London film festival this week and is released on 12 November in the US, and 25 February in the UK.

Grade: A+

Read the original article on Insider