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"Belfast" Review

 In 2018, Netflix made its first really hardcore run for Oscar gold with Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, garnering 10 nominations and winning for Best Director and Cinematography, both going to Cuaron. It was everything Oscar loves - it was in a foreign language (Spanish), it was shot in black & white, it featured extensive gratuitous full-frontal male nudity, it was about class struggle against a backdrop of civil strife and political upheaval, and it was boring as hell and unless you knew the Mexican history being portrayed, it didn't make sense. It was the self-indulgent wank that Oscar loves and rewards.

So when Kenneth Branagh's Belfast claimed seven Oscar nominations - including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (all Branagh), and Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor - and I saw it was a black & white semi-autobiographical movie about Branagh's childhood in Belfast during the Troubles, I snarked in my Culture Vulture's Oscar nomination hot take video that it was "Kenneth Branagh's Roma." Now that I've seen it, except for the lack of male nudity (sorry, Academy) and a slightly less foreign language (Irish), I can say I nailed it.

 Opening in 1969, it's the story of Buddy (Jude Hill - because calling him "Kenneth" would be too on the nose) who lives on a short street of Protestant and Catholic families. Suddenly, a mob of rioters appears and attacks the Catholic homes. They're super hardcore Loyalists to England who are not only unhappy with the Catholics, but aren't satisfied that there are Protestants coexisting with them and feel they should be more intolerant and purgey.

 Buddy's father, Pa (Jamie Dornan, helping undo some of the damage being in the 50 Shades movies did), works in England (the economics of that commute are never explained), leaving Ma (Caitriona Balfe) to raise Buddy and his brother alone most of the time, though Pa's parents, Pop (nominated Ciaran Hinds) and Granny (nominated Judi Dench) are over frequently to help. The family is in arrears to the tax man and concerns about the rising sectarian violence, with a local thug pressuring Pa to get involved with the religious war and prove how Protestant he is, making him want to move the family to Sydney or Vancouver. 

Like most semi-autobiographical period pieces, Belfast is an episodic disjointed collage of fragments of the filmmaker's memory. While Buddy frequently is the observer of what his parents or grandparents are experiencing, sometimes he seems to disappear while the adults' stories are featured. His crush on a Catholic classmate doesn't really go anywhere and being a child he's not the driver of events, but a passenger upon them. 

While the performances are solid across the board with the exception of Hill, who slips into Bad Child Actor moments sometimes, they aren't particularly outstanding. Dench and Hinds are as good as they normally are, but not particularly Oscar worthy and why Balfe was snubbed while the acting noms were being handed out like candy is another blot on an already blotted slate this year.

 Also snubbed is the lustrous monochromatic cinematography by Haris Zamabarloukos, Branagh's longtime DP. The framing may've been cribbed from Bergman, but it's still beautiful and it's a shame it was snubbed. 

As with so many of this year's Best Picture nominees, the problem with Belfast is that it's not an especially bad film as it is an inconsequential film that doesn't really illuminate the human condition and is mainly a filmed memoir of a prominent director's youth, tarted up with A-list talent and rich aesthetics to give it a patina of relevance.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.  


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