Belfast Review: Jamie Dornan steals the show in Branagh period piece

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 08: Jamie Dornan attends the premiere of Focus Features' "Belfast" at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on November 08, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 08: Jamie Dornan attends the premiere of Focus Features' "Belfast" at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on November 08, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) /

Every year, there’s always one film that rings in the best time of the year… awards season. The movies hitting theaters in November and December are just a different breed. They’re hungry for one thing… Oscar gold! When we started seeing the trailers for Belfast, it was clear the period drama would be a force to be reckoned with come awards time. It ticks all the boxes! However, is it the sure-fire, emotional wonder it looks to be? Well, read on!

Belfast follows the adventures of a young boy (Jude Hill) coming of age in Ireland during the 1960s and everything that entails. There’s life, love, politics, and above all, movies! Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds co-star in Belfast. Sir Kenneth Branagh directs the film from his script.

The strength of Belfast rests squarely on the shoulders of its incredibly talented cast. There’s not a bad performance on-screen. Jamie Dornan steps out in front of Belfast and steals the show in his second dynamite performance of 2021. Between this film and his appearance in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, Dornan gave us the musical performances the world didn’t know it needed. If he wasn’t t already a star, he certainly is after his work in Belfast.

At the same time, Jude Hill steps into the part of Buddy and runs away with the picture. The movie is the young boy’s feature film debut, but it doesn’t show. He shines in a role that could just as easily be daunting to a young performer and ends up being the heart and soul of the picture.

There’s a sense that Belfast desperately wants to say something about nostalgia. It is of course a period piece. The characters watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so it’s set sometime after 1968. Branagh’s direction is happiest showing his characters watching movies. The moments are beautifully lit, each capturing the wide-eyed joy cinema can bring. We watch the magic on-screen play out, not just through Buddy’s eyes, but his parents as well. Cinema can be magical and Kenneth Branagh sees this with refreshing purity.

At the same time though, the film’s black and white cinematography is trying to bring a further sense of nostalgia which ultimately struggles to gel. The use of black and white shines brightly in the movie theater scenes; however, when the action returns to reality, it loses its power. Rather than feeling nostalgic, Belfast instead feels like a contemporary movie shot with a black and white filter. Ever since The Artist was released in 2001, black and white cinematography grew to be synonymous with prestige, and ultimately, this is how it feels in Belfast. It’s only there to “tick” the prestige box. If Belfast had been shot in color, little would have changed.

There’s a general feeling throughout the picture that Belfast is just missing the mark. However, it’s hard to tell from where these struggles stem. Branagh’s directing is dynamic and the performances are gorgeous, but the movie can’t quite hit the emotional beats it desperately wants the audience to invest in. Perhaps this is in the choice to construct the script through Buddy’s perspective? Due to his age, the boy can’t quite wrap his head around the political and religious struggles hanging over the narrative. Branagh’s script is at the same time attempting to not only revel in the joyful nostalgia of youth, but also the power of religious strife, and as a result, it fails to hit either mark.

With awards season speeding towards us, Belfast will certainly be in the running for its fair share of awards. Everything about this movie screams “Oscar” picture and it checks all the right boxes. Heck, the mere presence of Sir Kenneth Branagh tells us this is prestige cinema. Unfortunately, though, it just can’t stick the landing. This certainly isn’t a bad movie (and fans of its talented cast are sure to not be disappointed), but as the ending credits roll, Belfast feels to be missing something.

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Belfast is playing in theaters around the country now.