By John H. Foote

(****) In theatres

When Belfast won the coveted People’s Choice Award at TIFF this year, I must confess, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Call it fatigue from watching endless films in the confines of my office, but the endless raved surprised me. Maybe that was the trouble, all the critics south of the border except Jeffrey Welles adored the film, one of them calling it “the greatest film I have ever seen.” Give your head a shake.

But at my second screening, I gave my own head a shake. While I am not sure it is the best film of the year, it certainly should be in the mix, as it is a dazzling, emotionally perfect study of the young Kenneth Branagh’s life growing up in Northern Ireland during “the troubles”. I do not believe for a second it is the greatest film ever made, but it is the finest work of Branagh’s career, and might be the finest film of the year with breathtaking cinematography that is utterly transformative.

Branagh has had an interesting career. He never quite made the breakthrough as a major movie star, but he is a revered actor and director, well liked in the industry, with critics often referring to him as this generation’s Olivier. That to me is a tragic insult, as Branagh is far better an actor than Olivier and a much stronger director. He has twice directed remakes of Olivier’s films, Henry V (1989) and the extraordinary Hamlet (1996), in which he famously shot the entire text. Branagh was something of a prodigy on the stage in England, creating enough of a stir to be able to direct such epic pieces as these. Powerful and deeply moving, he found himself an Oscar nominee for best Actor and Best Director for Henry V and was an immediate film sensation. His next film was the clever noir Dead Again (1991) with his wife Emma Thompson, though Robin Williams stole the film as a former psychiatrist, disgraced, and working as a butcher. Branagh faltered with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directing and starring as the good doctor, this time buff and shirtless working in his lab. Though the film had some powerful moments, it was not well received. Robert De Niro was the monster, an odd choice, and Helena Bonham Carter the doomed woman the doctor marries. The film has a single terrifying scene, which happens when Carter is brought back to life and slowly realizes it. The despair that crosses her face, the anger, the pathetic knowledge she is not really living anymore is shattering.

But his masterpiece up until now has been Hamlet, a sumptuous version of one of Shakespeare’s greatest. It employed a vast number of great actors in various roles, which frankly became distracting. But Branagh’s acting and direction are sublime. Despite its mastery, he was ignored by the Academy.

He will NOT be ignored for Belfast.

In fact, he might come away with the Oscar for Best Picture, and perhaps Best Director, though there is a huge love-in for Jane Campion this year. They may split the spoils—Best Picture going to Belfast and Director going to Campion for her neo-western The Power of the Dog. Either way, Belfast will go in as the frontrunner unless something astonishing is released between now and December 31. King Richard is making lots of noise in pre-screenings and West Side Story is likely to be remarkable, but Belfast is a safe bet for a Best Picture nomination.

Branagh has created a beautiful, sentimental film, a valentine to his days as a little boy growing up in Belfast. Though his parents are frightened in Northern Ireland when the troubles began between the Catholics and Protestants, to Buddy (Jude Hill), it was a grand adventure. He does not really understand why lifelong friends have turned against him and his family, but he suspects it has something to do with the explosions taking place in and around where he lives. Jude lives with his family in a small home in Belfast with his mother (Caitriona Balfe), his father (Jamie Dornan) and his beloved grandparents, beautifully portrayed by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. Jude’s happy-go-lucky life changes when he exits his home one day and stares down the street at something. He knows something ugly and terrible is going to happen, and without warning, the terrible conflict behind the Catholics and Protestants hits home. Suddenly, violence rocks the place where Jude lives, people are beaten, wounded, even killed. We see most of the film through the eyes of this child, who grows to understand the strife taking place.

His father realizes if his children are to have a decent chance in life, he needs to get them out of Ireland to Britain, but it means leaving the grandparents behind who have no interest in moving out of their homeland despite the threat. Buddy is torn: moving is an adventure but he does not wish to leave his grandparents behind.

My grandparents, both sides, were very present in our lives too, especially my father’s parents. We were their only grandchildren, so they took a special interest in us. They spent the Christmas holidays with us, and we were frequent overnight visitors to their home. When they passed, we mourned their loss for years. My grandmother taught me about literature and the arts; she had a huge impact on our lives, as do the loving grandparents in this film.

Ciarán Hinds portrayed Julius Caesar on HBO’s Rome in its first season, cutting a superb Caesar, arrogant, brilliant, corrupt. I have sought out everything he has done since. He will likely land in the race for Best Supporting Actor with his gentle performance as Buddy’s grandfather and friend. Judi Dench is equally superb as the grandmother. Together they are a joy to watch, stealing every scene they are in, offering a lesson in what true long-lasting love can be. They finish each other’s sentences, exchange loving looks, and you just know they are more in love than the day they married.

Buddy is surrounded by love, and revels in it.

Branagh juxtaposes the love and warmth within the family home with the strife and anger happening in the streets. Idyllic family homes are suddenly shattered by bombs and explosions as the situation escalates. We are plunged directly into the streets, and it is pretty frightening, particularly knowing that children are playing in the streets as the mobs plan their terrorist acts. We feel the tension and terror along with the families. Yet for Buddy, it is often a great adventure (which suddenly becomes deadly serious) as it would for a little boy. He doesn’t understand this sudden change in loyalties, friends becoming enemies overnight. Children do not understand hatred; it is taught to them.

Jamie Dornan is outstanding as the father, the first great performance he has given, and along with Balfe, they are terrific. The joy in watching them take the family to the movies is infectious and we feel it along with them. Young Hill is a revelation as Buddy, giving one of the great child performances of all time. His director may just have guided him all the way to the Oscar race.

And Branagh, years after Henry V and Hamlet is back with a masterful film in which he establishes his skills as a storyteller. Bravo sir and welcome back.

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