Director (Kenneth Branagh)
Original Screenplay (Kenneth Branagh) WINNER
Supporting Actress (Judi Dench)
Supporting Actor (Ciaran Hinds)
Original Song (“Down to Joy”/Van Morrison)
In CODA, towards the end, a parent tells his child to “Go”. In CODA, of course, that command is all the more remarkable because it is the only spoken word the deaf father ever utters, but it holds, within its emotional breadth, great power and is, ultimately, an expression of the deep love the father has for his daughter.
Remarkably, almost the exact same words with the same emotions are expressed by another parent for her adult child towards the end of Belfast. And there are many other parallels between these two movies. They are both about families, torn apart and pushed together by the changing forces of the outside world. Although one was in contemporary New England, and the other in Belfast, Ireland during the ‘Troubles’ of the early 70’s, the stories are both best at showing how strong families endure and shelter their members against the sometimes wrenching environments where they are forced to live. If you watch one of these movies, you really should watch the other one just to get a complete picture of what a family means and what it is supposed to do.
Both movies were Oscar successes. Belfast only won the Oscar for Original Screenplay, but was nominated in six other other categories tying it with West Side Story for third in total number of nominations. But because five of those nominations were in major categories, it ended up a solid third in my Oscar buzz index, meaning it was considered a very good film by many of the Academy guilds. (CODA, although only nominated in three categories, ended up winning all three of them, including Best Picture.)
In both pictures, the leading characters are children, played by relatively new young actors. I found Emilia Jones’ performance – as Ruby in CODA – near perfect and predicted that we will be seeing a lot more of her talents. And I suspect the same can be said of young Jude Hill, in his acting debut in Belfast, who plays Buddy, a nine year old growing up in the cobbled streets of industrial Belfast. Many reviewers have noted that we can also expect to see more of young Hill. Clearly, Kenneth Branagh, who wrote and directed this autobiographical film, saw a lot of himself in the young lad. It is reported that Branagh surreptitiously filmed him acting in rehearsals in order to capture more of his spontaneous acting and that many of those rehearsals made it into the final film. Buddy, and Jude Hill, are indeed the center of this film, just as Ruby was the lead character in hers.
But families never work well centered on a single character. And both films take great care to flesh out the rest of the family members. Although they don’t have any other names than “Ma”, “Pa”, “Granny” and “Pops”, Buddy has parents and grandparents. The film explores most of the various relationships in the film.
“Pa” is Jamie Dornan, who has Fifty Shades of Grey to his credit, while “Ma” is played by Caitriona Balfe who I really enjoyed in Ford v Ferrari. (In addition to very credible acting, it doesn’t hurt that both of them – former models for Calvin Klein and Victorias Secret, respectively – are easy on the eyes). Dornan plays a Dad who works in England a lot, but seems to always be at home when the drama picks up. Balfe is exceptional as a woman who loves her family very much, but is torn about how best to protect them, both from the government tax man and the growing Irish Troubles. Both Dornan and Balfe were born in Ireland, although after the time period of the film.
Balfe did not get an Oscar nod, and she probably should have, but both of the actors playing the grandparents did. Judy Dench, one of the grand dames of British stage and film acting, received her seventh acting nomination for her role here. (She was born in England of an Irish mother!). Ciaran Hinds, who was born in Belfast in 1953, received a supporting actor nod for this performance. What is fascinating in their performances is not only in how much they care for their son (Pa) and his children, but also how much they love each other. The movie places almost as much attention on the relationships between Ma and Pa and between Granny and Pops, as it does on Buddy. The value of that is that these characters are all very well fleshed out and we understand how valuable a functioning family can be. As in CODA, the family is nearly as important as the central character.
There is a problem here, though, and it is, in my mind, very serious. That problem is in the portrayal of Buddy’s brother, Will. Having gotten this far into the review, you might be surprised that there even IS a brother. It is very unclear to me exactly what function this brother is supposed to serve in this film. If this family really is an autobiography of Kenneth Branagh, than it must be the case the Mr. Branagh either didn’t like his brother, or else he was essentially absent during the whole time period being covered. Yes, he does appear in one scene where he admits to his father that he did something that maybe he shouldn’t have. But there are no real conversations between Buddy and Will of any consequence at all, and I find that rather strange. Now I never had a brother growing up, but I’ve seen families that did have brothers, and I really can’t understand how such a potentially powerful relationship can be so non-existent. Either that part of the family was never scripted (which would be a flaw in the writing), or else it got edited out. And at 97 minutes, a few more minutes to develop this angle would have been just fine. To me, it might have been better to have edited Will out of the movie altogether and have Buddy be a single child. At any rate, I find the weakness of the Will character to be an essential flaw in this movie.
Technically, Belfast is interesting and well-crafted. The movie opens and closes with panoramic views of the contemporary city. And those scenes are done in striking sunset colors. Then the camera focuses on a colorful wall mural and scans up to the top of the wall. As the camera moves above the wall, we see the Belfast of the early 70s come into sharp black and white focus. The story unfolds in crisp black and white camerawork, although in a couple of places the camera man gets carried away with some dizzying 720 degree turns. It deviates from black and white only in the brief clips it shows of real 70s films that are shown in their original color schemes. These film clips accomplish two things: One is to illustrate how important movies were to Buddy (and Kenneth Branagh). But also, pay attention to what the lines are that Branagh has quoted – they are always relevant to the immediate issue that the family is confronting. I thought that was a great touch.
Perhaps the best technical angle of the movie is in the music and sound. Nominated for Sound, I agree it has a clarity that is unusual for movies with lots of dialog. But more fun, I thought, was all the music from Van Morrison who, like Branagh, was born in Belfast, although several years earlier. Van Morrison composed a song for this movie, “Down to Joy”, which was nominated for Original Song. (Unfortunately, this is the single piece of nominated music that I was unable to get a copy of, so I haven’t been able to listen to it while writing this review, and, therefore, can’t comment on it). In addition to the original song, the soundtrack incorporates nine more Van Morrison songs, half of them written during the time period of the movie. If you enjoy his music, like my wife does, you will find it a welcome enhancement.
Despite the similar themes to CODA, Belfast didn’t do as well either with audiences or the critics. I suspect that for audiences, it might be the contemporary bias against black and white films and maybe, also, the setting in a difficult time given the current war in Ukraine. Both of those are unfortunate prejudices. There is a place for black and white cinematography and I think this setting is one of them. It works especially well when trying to establish the lack of clarity between moral choices – that life is usually found in the shades of grey.
Critics were spread all over the map. One RogerEbert critic, Robert Daniels, complained that the film “..contains little dramatic momentum, and even less of a coherent visual language.” Others have complained that the focus on Buddy is too much and overly cutesy. Then, two months later, on the same RogerEbert site, Christy Lemire writes “Branagh has a made a film that’s both intimate and ambitious.” And “Ultimately, though, the sincerity on display wins you over.” Jeannette Catsoulis (New York Times) gave the film a “Critics Pick”. So, like audience reaction, critic response has been mixed.
I suspect many viewers may fail to find anything in this family that they can relate to. My wife Joan, for example, couldn’t identify with anyone and, especially, not the Mother. For her, this isn’t a good representation of family life. (On the other hand, she loved CODA).
If you enjoy movies that depict healthy families, watch both of them. They provide two different takes on family. (3.5 *)
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