There’s this incredible moment in Conor McPherson’s low-key horror flick The Eclipse that finds Ciarán Hinds’s melancholic widower driving alone at night, lost in thought, when he’s suddenly visited by the not-yet ghost of his dying father-in-law sitting in the front passenger seat, the soundtrack’s chorus segueing from soothing to bloodcurdling, causing a startled Hinds to veer off the road. Hinds is haunted by an inescapable future and dread that all he has left are missed opportunities and regrets.
A little over a decade later, Hinds now fills the in-law’s doom-laden role as a good-natured, black-lunged grandpa in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a movie that, like The Eclipse, considers time’s inexorable march and shudders, albeit in an infinitely cheerier fashion. Though it managed to pick up a few festival awards (Hinds won Best Actor at the Tribeca Film Festival), The Eclipse played on public service television and has all but disappeared from conversations about contemporary horror, perhaps a few years too early to capitalize on the prestige/minimalism boom of the A24 and Neon variety.
Belfast has no such worries, having garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. So it goes.
Buddy (Jude Hill) is an adorable moppet in 1969 Northern Ireland, his working-class neighborhood a warzone amidst The Troubles. Because the film is filtered through the perspective of a nine-year-old child, the Northern Ireland conflict is boiled down to Protestant persecution of Catholics, with Buddy’s seemingly apolitical family doing its best to remain inoffensively neutral. Billy (Colin Morgan), a local scumbag and the film’s chief embodiment of Ulster loyalism, doesn’t espouse much of a discernible ideology, his fixation on recruiting Buddy’s father “Pa” (Jamie Dornan) pure bullying. If there’s a politics to Belfast, it’s against Catholic discrimination but also regards Ireland’s connection to the United Kingdom an economic necessity, with Pa making frequent commutes to England for work.
Writer/director Kenneth Branagh was born in Belfast; Buddy is an unambiguous autobiographical proxy (in a cute bit of metatextual foreshadowing, he’s shown reading an issue of Thor). The meat of the film is quotidian slices of life: Buddy harbors a crush on a Catholic classmate, conspires in low-level candy heists, and, in the segments that probably spoke loudest to Academy voters, frequents the movies. In the film’s various Sullivan’s Travels moments, Buddy and his beleaguered family find respite at screenings of One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so transfixed and transported that the clips are shown in full vivid color, contrasting the black and white cinematography of the rest of the film. These were likely formative experiences for Branagh, his long-delayed, notably horny Death on the Nine an even grander/exhausting fanboyish tribute to old Hollywood glamour.
Belfast, then, sits comfortably alongside this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees in its enshrinement of a flawed past (Licorice Pizza) and distrust of uncertain futures (Paul Atreides’s visions of a looming holy war in Dune; the apocalyptic gentrification underpinning West Side Story; the entirety of Don’t Look Up). In the film’s best moment, “Ma” (Caitríona Balfe) credibly worries that fleeing the dangerous confines of Belfast for England or Canada might result in only further alienation and misery. As popular interest in the Oscars wane and the critically-underwhelmed Cinderella currently leads an ill-conceived #OscarsFanFavorite Twitter poll, Academy members fretting over the existential meaning and future of the awards might wonder the same thing.
Runtime: 97 minutes
MPA Rating: PG-13
Streaming: In theaters; available to purchase on streaming services