We Have Seen Next Year’s Oscar-Winner, and It Is ‘Belfast’: TIFF 2021

We do not like Oscar prognosticating. We do not like it on a boat, we do not like it with a goat. We do not like it with eggs and salmon, and we do not like it from Pete Hammond. Nothing against the journalists who cover this beat, of course; there are those precious few who’ve turned reading the annual awards-season tea leaves into something like an art form. It’s just that once the fall festival circuit kicks into gear and the “studios” — a blanket term that now covers everything from corporate monoliths to streaming-service production outlets to boutique indie distributors — start releasing the films they hope will attract attention, everything gets boiled down to a single breathless utterance: “But what are its chances come Oscar night?!”

This kind of reductive perspective gets very old very quickly, as well as giving short shrift to a lot of what comes out between Labor Day and Christmas. And to view everything in the Big Four fall fests (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York) with gold-plated blinders on is to miss the majority of truly great works that get scheduled for pundit-to-public consumption every autumn. So many great movies aren’t what the experts might consider “Oscar-worthy.” So what?

But we aren’t blind, and we can certainly recognize when something comes along with the potential to sway voters, sweep categories, generate a chatter that cuts through the rest of the seasonal campaigning din. Which is why, over the first weekend of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, we felt we’d seen a particularly strong candidate for next year’s Best Picture Oscar, if not the outright winner. Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in late-Sixties Northern Ireland, is a major change of pace for the man who was once dubbed “the next Laurence Olivier,” and easily the best thing he’s done as a writer/director in decades. (All apologies to Hercule Poirot’s mustache.) It’s a memory piece, evoking a specific time, place and political crisis in a way that is indelibly, achingly personal. And it is also exactly the kind of movie that Oscars voters are likely to respond to and reward at this very moment. We aren’t saying Belfast has been designed to win awards — there’s way too much of Branagh’s blood on the table for that. But its mix of gravitas, sentimentality, salty wit, tragedy and roman à clef storytelling is most definitely Academy catnip.

It’s 1969, and the street in Northern Ireland where the 10-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) lives is bustling with kids playing soccer, neighbors running in and out of row houses, mothers chatting in doorways and calling their children in for lunch. Then a mob suddenly appears from around a corner, with masked men throwing Molotov cocktails and setting cars on fire. Everything is chaos and jittery camera movements as folks scramble. Soon, tanks are rolling down the block. It’s ground zero for the August Riots, which would set the stage for the sectarian violence that would become synonymous with Belfast for decades. These militants want the Catholics out of this largely Protestant neighborhood. They will burn every shop and home to the ground if they have to.

Buddy’s family is Protestant, but his dad (Jamie Dornan) works for the English government, which makes the whole clan a target. It also takes him away from the family a lot, much to consternation of Buddy, his brother, and his long-suffering mom (Outlander‘s Catríona Balfe). Luckily, the lad has support from his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Dame Judi Dench), who counsel him about how to woo the brainy girl Buddy has a crush on when they aren’t affectionately bickering with each other. An older friend, Moira (Lara McDonnell), teaches him how to nick chocolate bars from the sweets shop. Star Trek is on TV, One Million Years B.C. is playing at the Saturday matinee picture show, blue-eyed Celtic soul is on every jukebox, and a man just landed on the moon. Life is beautiful, until it isn’t. Belfast is Buddy’s kingdom, his safe place, until it can’t be any longer.

This is the territory that Branagh is staking out: the fertile ground where nostalgia meets history, filtered through both a boy’s eyes and an older man’s memory banks. If you had to sum up Belfast in a single image, you could do worse than Dornan and Balfe dancing in the street with each other, smiles on their faces as familiar Irish R&B (new then, old now) plays, with the whole scene framed behind a loose wall of barbed wire. It’s a movie that very much has the Troubles in mind, but as part of a bigger picture that constitutes the filmmaker’s feelings about his home town. The violence isn’t just background noise so much as one of the louder, more dissonant instruments in an orchestra he’s conducting. And it’s the motivating factor for the family having to contemplate leaving their community behind. Like Branagh, who moved to England with his parents and siblings when he was nine, Buddy will eventually have to say goodbye. But it’s part of the legacy of the Irish to leave anyway, because as one character says, if everyone from Ireland stayed put, “the world wouldn’t have any pubs.”

The hosannas coming out of the movie’s premiere at Telluride and its screenings here in Toronto have been plentiful. Ditto the comparisons to Roma, partially because Belfast‘s particular mix of the past’s lighter and darker shades are reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s 2018 masterpiece and partially because Branagh’s film is also largely shot in black-and-white. (The rare uses of color are mostly reserved for the movies and plays Buddy attends; it’s an effective if heavy-handed homage to the lifechanging magic of art.) Some have said that Roma wasn’t able to add “Oscar-winner” to its list of accolades because the AMPAS powers that be weren’t ready to coronate Netflix and weren’t ready to give Best Picture to a movie with subtitles; thankfully, the latter is no longer an issue.

Branagh’s film will have neither of those pitfalls to deal with while still hitting the same emotional sweet spots, from the low-angle shots of Buddy’s Da, a larger than life defender of the family with a superhero jawline, to the agony of nationalist strife and the ecstasy of Buddy’s parents miming “Everlasting Love” at a wake. Even voters who don’t feel their buttons being pushed, or rather, mashed, by the soundtrack cues (there are so, so, so many Van Morrison songs) and period details and the Hinds/Dench version of these guys will find themselves drawn in by the heartstrings Branagh is plucking here. You can practically feel the narrative around this veteran Renaissance man starting to coalesce. Belfast is a wonderful, surprisingly solid take on a genre — the Memoir Melodrama — that would be a festival standout even if TIFF wasn’t operating at a sort of programming half-capacity that mirrors its limited seating capacity. You sense that the conversation around it is only just beginning.

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