By Lynn Venhaus
For 10 days preceding the 94th annual Academy Awards on March 27, we are spotlighting each of the 10 Best Picture running a review from when the movie opened locally, and then add awards season news and other tidbits.

“Belfast” is a semi-autobiographical account of Kenneth Branagh’s early childhood in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, around the time “The Troubles” began in his neighborhood, in summer of 1969. His family was Protestant, but they didn’t want any harm done to their Catholic neighbors.

Rated: PG-13 for some violence and strong language, “Belfast” is directed by Kenneth Branagh and stars Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Lewis McCaskie. It runs 1 hour, 37 minutes.

It is now available on DVD-Blu-Ray and digital and video on demand..

2021-2022 Awards: “Belfast” is nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Song (Van Morrison, “Down to Joy”), Ciaran Hinds for Best Supporting Actor and Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress as the grandparents. March 27

At the BAFTAs on March 13, it won Outstanding British Film of the Year.

It won the People’s Choice Award at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Of the critics’ groups I belong to — Critics Choice Association Awards – Best Young Actor/Actress Jude Hill, Best Ensemble and Best Original Screenplay March 13; Alliance of Women Film Journalists – EDA Award for Best Original Screenplay; and St. Louis Film Critics Association — it was nominated for eight awards, but no wins.

I ranked it No. 8 on my Top Ten List on KTRS Radio (and in alphabetical order in the Webster-Kirkwood Times). I wrote: “Dramatically charged and filled with gentle humor, writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical account of his early childhood in Northern Ireland when “The Troubles” began in the summer of 1969 shows how being exposed to turbulence changes your life forever.”

On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a Tomatometer rating of 87% from 303 critics (I am an approved critic and gave it B+) and an Audience Score of 92%.

Caitriona Balfe

This review appeared in the Webster-Kirkwood Times on Nov. 15. The movie opened Nov. 12, and was shown a week earlier at the St. Louis International Film Festival on Nov. 5.

Somewhere in his memories, Kenneth Branagh has processed what it was like to be 9 years old at a tumultuous time of change. Turns out you can go home again.

During the lockdown, he wrote “Belfast,” and his film memory piece is a warm reflection about family and community. Because it’s so personal, he understands your family is your home, after all.

Through the eyes of a child, Branagh also expresses how being exposed to turbulence where you live changes you forever.

This Belfast clan is not unlike Tevye’s family leaving Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof,” or over the past decades, countless ex-patriates from Africa and the Middle East who sought refuge in other lands after their lives were disrupted by war. The decisions are tough but sadly, increasingly necessary for survival.

Elevated by a pitch-perfect ensemble, evocative black-and-white cinematography and a score/soundtrack by Van Morrison, “Belfast” is both dramatically charged and filled with gentle humor.

As the director, Branagh has coaxed an unaffected performance from the lovable Jude Hill as his alter ego. In his first film, the young actor is masterful observing his surrounding, confiding in his grandpa and being delightful in interactions with his family and friends.

When he is frozen in the streets as he hears approaching rioters and is genuinely afraid of what he is witnessing, he is our eyes and ears. That moment crystalizes this film, and is one of the best scenes of the year. You feel what you feel.

This is a story with a wide range of emotions, as the parents, portrayed by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe, struggle with finances and raising a family during threats to their safety.

Balfe is impressive as the devoted mother, strong while the father is away working in England, and courageous about protecting her family. She is most certain to be a nominee for Best Supporting Actress.

Also memorable are Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds as the wise and loving grandparents. Dench displays a sardonic wit as Granny while Hinds is the “Pops” with a special relationship with his grandson who advises with common sense.

Branagh, who frequently works on stage and in front of the camera, deftly handles actors. He has worked with Dench multiple times, and while she always excels, she is particularly poignant here.

Branagh has been nominated for five Academy Awards, the first man to be nominated for five different categories (director and actor for “Henry V,” supporting actor for “My Week with Marilyn,” adapted screenplay “Hamlet,” and live action short “Swan Song.” As a producer on “Belfast,” he could make history if he is nominated for Best Picture.

Considering how his last movie was the universally panned “Artemis Fowl” in 2020, this would be a remarkable turnaround – although he has been acclaimed for his Shakespeare adaptations and other works.

The film’s sights and sounds are noteworthy, with spot-on vintage outfits, retro tunes and scenic look. “Belfast” includes fine work by production designer Jim Clay, who worked with Branagh on “Murder on the Orient Express” in 2017, and costume designer Charlotte Walter.

This year, there are several films shot in black-and-white, but “Belfast” is a hybrid with color for contemporary scenes, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has handled the transitions beautifully.

What is lacking is character development, for these roles are only snapshots from a child’s point of view.

And if you are unfamiliar with “The Troubles,” which refers to the Northern Ireland conflict from the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, then you will not find any historical information in this film.

The Troubles, primarily political and nationalistic, had two sides referred to as Protestants and Catholics, but it was not a religious conflict. The key issue was the status of the country – Unionists and loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom were mostly Ulster Protestants while Irish nationalists and republicans who wanted to leave the UK and join a united Ireland, were mostly Irish Catholics. About 3,500 people were killed, with more than half civilians, during those 30 years.

As we dissolve to the current Belfast landscape, there is a dedication to those who left and those who stayed. But no information card on the conflict.

Yet, the film stays true to its perspective. While it might be specific geographically, it has a universal appeal.

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Focus Features and Cinema St. Louis are presenting an encore screening of BELFAST, the St. Louis International Film Festival’s 2021 winner of the TV5MONDE Award for Best International Feature, at 7 pm on Wednesday, March 16..

The screening will kick off St. Patrick’s Day festivities at the Hi-Pointe Theatre, near Dogtown. All attendees will receive a voucher for a complimentary small soda and popcorn (no substitutions allowed). The screening will be free for Cinema St. Louis members and is also open to the general public, with complimentary passes available at the following link, while supplies last:

Please note: The screening will be overbooked to ensure capacity and seating is not guaranteed.

Written and directed by Academy Award® nominee Kenneth Branagh, BELFAST is a poignant story of love, laughter, and loss in one boy’s childhood, amid the music and social tumult of the late 1960s. BELFAST is now nominated for seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture of the Year.

About Cinema St. Louis: The nonprofit Cinema St. Louis produces the St. Louis International Film Festival, one of the largest and highest-profile international film festivals in the Midwest. The fest has been lauded in USA Today’s 10Best list. CSL also produces the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, QFest St. Louis, the Classic French Film Festival, and Golden Anniversaries (a series of films celebrating their 50th anniversary).

By Alex McPherson

Accessible and brimming with directorial skill, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s future awards hopeful, “Belfast,” is an affecting coming-of-age story set amidst civil conflict.

Taking place during the summer of 1969 in Northern Ireland, “Belfast” functions as a cinematic memoir for Branagh — looking back at a seemingly idyllic stage in his life beset by the brutality of The Troubles between Protestants and Catholics. Buddy (a revelatory Jude Hill) is a boy nearing adolescence, possessing a wide-eyed curiosity and playfulness in his small, mostly Protestant neighborhood. He’s surrounded by his courageous mother (Catríona Balfe), his father (Jamie Dornan) who works in England, brother Will (Lewis McAskie), his rebellious older cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell), his lovably sardonic grandmother (Dame Judi Dench), and his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds), who remains Buddy’s primary confidant.. 

As destructive riots begin to take place within and around his community, Buddy (a Protestant) struggles to make sense of what’s happening, if one can even make sense of it to begin with. What matters most to him is having fun and attempting to build up the courage to talk to his school crush (a Catholic girl). The adult world creeping steadily upon his doorstep threatens to permanently influence the person he will become — forcing him to grow up as his parents debate whether or not to leave the only place they’ve called home.

“Belfast” could arguably be faulted for not painting a comprehensive picture of The Troubles, but Branagh’s film remains both uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Seeing the story play out through Buddy’s eyes lends the proceedings a wistful edge, as we observe this young soul — full of life — navigate an increasingly perilous environment with loved ones by his side.

After an in-color introduction showcasing present-day Belfast, the film swiftly transitions to crisp black-and-white photography, evoking the sense of being transported back to an era both fantastical and menacing. The sequence that follows is one of 2021’s best. Buddy’s street devolves from safe and peaceful into utter chaos when a Protestant mob attempting to expunge any remaining Catholics from the neighborhood rounds the corner. The camera swirls around Buddy frozen in fear as the crowd approaches, and we’re launched into an intense situation not completely unlike a horror film. It’s reflective of Branagh’s fusion of tenderness and harsh reality that continues throughout, which makes each moment of grace between the characters all the more meaningful.

Composed largely of small conversations between Buddy and his family, “Belfast” gives the titular setting both a welcoming, lived-in feel, as well as the sense that unexpected violence could strike at any point. Indeed, thanks to the absolutely incredible cast and imaginative direction from Branagh, viewers can feel his passionate longing for those days gone by.

Even though the looming carnage casts a dark shadow over most scenes, there’s still plenty of humor to be found here, particularly in regard to Buddy’s heart-to-heart discussions with his grandma and grandpa about everything from the moon landing to how to woo girls to what to make of the outside world that’s seemingly falling apart.

Moments like these, given added texture through Hinds’ and Dench’s wise, knowing auras, pull at viewers’ heart strings and underline the fact that this resilient family can weather any obstacle if they stick together. Hill is a spectacular performer for someone 11 years old, conveying Buddy’s confusion, wonder, and eventual sadness in completely believable fashion.

The rest of the actors are just as excellent. Balfe is blindingly good as a beautiful, caring, deeply concerned parent who wants to protect her children and is strongly attached to her home base in Belfast. Dornan gives a rich performance as Buddy’s father, a man fiercely against viewing people in absolutes, who faces pressure from a radical acquaintance (Colin Morgan) to join a Protestant gang. The stressed couple fight over barely being able to pay rent and whether to move away, all while Buddy listens nearby, the sparkling glint in his eyes turning to tears.

Cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos does an admirable job depicting Buddy’s community as an interconnected unit teeming with energy where everyone knows each other, implementing tracking shots galore. Characters might be conversing quietly only to be interrupted by someone sitting in the corner of the frame, resembling a stage production. “Belfast” also reverts back to color photography when Buddy and company view a play or film together, likely emphasizing the profound impact that the arts had on Branagh as a child, but simultaneously feeling a bit on-the-nose.

With a soundtrack by Van Morrison accentuating moments of euphoria and tragedy among the characters, and a mournful, jazzy original score, “Belfast” depicts the city and Buddy’s family with a nostalgic glow tinged with sadness and regret. A few scenes feel too far separated from reality, and the film follows a relatively predictable framework, but the power of Branagh’s passion project is difficult to refute, and absolutely worth experiencing.

“Belfast” is a 2021 drama directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds Lewis McAskie, and Colin Morgan. Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language and runs 1 hour, 38 minutes. Alex’s Grade: A-