Oscar bait. What do you think of when you hear the term? Serious, historical dramas marked by powerful performances? Movies created to appeal to the dramatic conceit of The Academy? Every year as awards season looms one movie slots effortlessly into the role claimed in 2011 by the eminently forgettable The Artist (a movie seemingly created in a lab to annoy people and win awards).
This year has been dominated by talk about the bombastic Dune, the deliciously twisted Titane, the emotional Flee, and the best movie of the year Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. But no movie has really stepped up to claim the Oscar bait spot. Enter Belfast. Serious, emotional, historical, and black & white. The period piece Oscar bait par excellence. It would be easy to dismiss this movie as a cynical ploy, and in some quarters that narrative has already begun. The reality, however, is often quite different from the narratives we believe.
What then is Belfast? It’s a coming-of-age story directed by Kenneth Branagh starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, and Jude Hill. Jude Hill plays Buddy (Kenneth Branagh’s self-insert) as his family navigates the period in Ireland before the troubles. Hill and Jamie Dornan are the true standouts in this film, and their relationship grounds the story. Dornan looms large even in his absence. Although Jude Hill plays Branagh as a boy, the struggles his character faces are familiar to all who have grown up in the shadow of disaster.
Branagh captures the beauty of the city with a lover’s touch. The neighborhood comes alive under the lens of Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. Throughout the movie’s runtime, the small neighborhood begins to feel familiar, and the neighbors themselves become family. The family life that Branagh describes- filled with imperfect people in troubled times- feels real. The tensions between brothers and parents are understated, realized with the subtlety of someone who understands that the power of love doesn’t whitewash conflict, but it does soothe it.
The film shies away from the insipid tactic of drawing too many parallels between history and the present day, but there are several moments of penetrating insight. Perhaps the most interesting is the constant pressure to pick a side in the coming conflict. Neighborhood bullies and self-styled protectors constantly pressure Jude Hill and Jamie Dornan to hate and anathemize their neighbors. Hill, Dornan, Balfe, and co. resist, but the pressure continues to ratchet up. It doesn’t take much insight to recognize the totalizing influence of ideology- and even worse, the ugly way that self-appointed guardians of that ideology dominate others.
A subtler, but just as interesting point is the way Branagh points to the intersection of religion and politics as a way that religion is slowly hollowed out. The thundering hellfire and brimstone preacher terrifies young Buddy spiritually even as the violent Protestantism of his neighborhood threatens to transform his idyllic childhood. Taken together – the violent spiritual assault paired with the violence of the real-world- shocks buddy into ambivalence. It is hinted at that this has happened to his elders- who display a complete disinterest in theological boundaries.
The emotional conclusion of the movie hits about as hard as anything I saw last year, even though it was expected from the beginning. Parts of it are shown in the trailers but even with the benefit of foresight, the final scenes are wrenching to watch. That is in no small part due to the genius of Branagh who invests every interaction between friend and foe and neighbor and stranger with enough power to land an emotional punch when the conflagration begins.
The lean runtime prevents the film from ever becoming bogged down or boring. Even though Belfast moves at an unhurried pace, it never feels self-indulgent or bloated. What Belfast is is beautiful. The dinghy is elevated, the beautiful is made stunning, and the familiar is shot as tenderly as only a childhood movie can be. This is not a cynical movie. Passion leaks from every frame.
Returning to the beginning discourse surrounding this film, I hope the movie I’ve described is more than just a rote exercise in checking boxes or an artist seeking to confound his audience to the delight of critics. What is interesting about this discussion is that we often use the terms pretentious and Oscar bait as if they are interchangeable. Those terms are not synonymous. Pretentious is a term used for a film that is intentionally designed to be opaque and/or referential, in ways that are alienating to normal audiences. Think of movies like Titane, Climax, or The Lighthouse. Movies that need to be unlocked before they can be understood.
I’ve been skirting around the question, but the answer should be obvious now. Yes, Belfast is “Oscar bait,” and that is perfectly fine. If Oscar bait continues to deliver us films like this, I will continue to support the genre. If you have a chance, see this movie in theaters. If you can’t find a theater playing it near you, rent or buy it to stream. It may not be the best movie of the year, and it may not be the most original or even the most “artsy.” But it is tremendously enjoyable in the way that only a passion project could be. Branagh has created a film that combines contrasting themes- hope and despair, innocence and menace- with the touch that only a veteran can apply. If it wins Best Picture over Film Twitter’s favorites, the voices of reproach will be loud and insistent, but they will be mistaken. Belfast represents the melding of the increasing valence of populism and the artistic pretensions of the academy. It’s quite a worthy feat.