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The Conservative Critic

Oscar Watch: Is Belfast worthy of being the Oscar frontrunner




Considered the Best Picture frontrunner at the Oscars, Belfast is a rare project of Kenneth Branagh which does not star Kenneth Branagh though – since it is autobiographical it kind of still does. The story follows an idealized version of Branagh’s childhood in Belfast, Ireland as the conflict between protestants and catholics came to a boil in the 1960s. 

But is it worthy of Best Picture? The Conservative Critic asks, is it entertaining? Does it have intellectual/artistic value? And is it liberal propaganda? 

The Convervative Critic Meter Check: Belfast 

Overall rating: Very good

Belfast has a lot going for it and it’s no surprise that the Academy has picked it as a favorite. To start, there is not a lot of film out there covering the subject of the protestant/catholic conflicts in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. So the subject matter is relatively fresh. Next, the perspective of a child in Belfast during these often violent conflicts is interesting and definitely brought life and personality to an otherwise political and a bit gruesome of a story. The personal elements of Branagh’s family life were important pieces of punctuation on the family’s decision making and survival during a tumultuous time. 

The film is a bit slow even for its genre, taking careful time to explore the emotional landscape of all its players. The tension of escalating violence and familial discord is perfectly timed and does create startling climaxes but doesn’t quite push the film into an “entertainment” realm. 

It’s artistic value is high with strong performances by the entire cast but most notably of Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) as Ma who ironically was snubbed by the Academy and did not receive a Best Actress nomination (which she definitely deserved). The writing is exceptional but the only drawback is that the film is in black and white which as you know if you’re a long time reader is a major pet peeve of mine and I consider it more often than not to be a cheap trick attempting to elevate material which cannot stand on its own.

Is it entertaining? 

Rating: Slow with well placed tension 

Belfast is slow. It kicks off with a pretty major bang and then sort of quietly meanders through family drama and neighborhood anxiety until reaching its emotional and physical height. Because of the growing tension in the family and in the city, it’s not completely sleepy and it does draw the viewer in, especially those who do not know much about the history of the subject matter. It does not, however, ever truly captivate. Many films of similar genres have the capacity to glue viewers to their seat no matter how quiet the material may be (I am reminded of the intensity of The Reader of 2008 which was also a deeply personal retelling of historical events). Ultimately viewers aren’t numbed into oblivion but they’ll have no trouble getting up for snacks without pausing.

Does it have artistic/intellectual value? 

Rating: Very well done 

Of Branagh what I can say is that he knows his worth. I am personally a fan of Branagh’s style and his version of Hamlet (which he wrote, directed and starred in) is considered to be best-in-class. The autobiographical nature of Belfast is a major departure for Branagh who tends to focus more on classical theater and in placing color in worlds that viewers traditionally considered bland or tired. In this way, it makes sense that he chose to shoot Belfast in black-and-white. Stepping into his own life and into truth might seem as an artist like a vastly different or even opposite project than what he has produced in the past. So it’s easy to see how and why he would contrast his prior colorful and lively work with a more somber black-and-white aesthetic. However, the film didn’t need to be in black and white and Branagh didn’t seem to make an attempt to balance the lack of color with increased textures or scale. Ultimately the lack of color seems to cheapen the work and give it an air of desperation which it didn’t need. 

But despite that choice, the film was well directed and the talent was stellar. Balfe as Ma really lent the entire cast a load of credibility. For her to be snubbed in favor of Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Kristin Stewart for Spencer is a crime against art. Jaime Dornan (50 Shades of Gray, A Private War) also gave his best performance to date as Pa. Veterans Ciaran Hinds (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter) and Judi Dench (007, Pride and Prejudice) as Pop and Granny rounded out the performances with power, both receiving nominations for their respective supporting categories. 

Belfast is ultimately a gem of a film which is a well-deserved Oscar frontrunner. Would have been all the more impressive if brave enough to show color.

Is it liberal propaganda? 

Rating: Probably not

I do not know enough about the Irish protestant/catholic conflicts to know the extent of the politics or how the lean left or right. So from an average American perspective it appeared the film was neutral when it comes to leftist or right wing politics. 

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