This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox every week, sign up for it here.
Charming and destructive. Humorous and profound. Ingenious and important. Personal and universal.
Nothing gives Hollywood insiders a boner like dichotomies. Think of it as literary Viagra. If it takes more than four hours to decide which puns-of-contradictions to use as a movie poster, consult a physician.
That means of course Kenneth Branagh’s new movie Belfast, which I would use all the phrases to describe, wins best film at this year’s Oscars. This is a film about the problems in Northern Ireland, set in the summer of 1969, when tensions between loyalists and Republicans – Protestants and Catholics in shorthand – boiled over to deadly violence that divided communities and families apart. It also ranks as perhaps the most audience-friendly film of the year. Dichotomies!
Of course, joy and sorrow are not polarized emotions as much as they are hopelessly intertwined with Irish. The saddest events evoke the most hoarse laughter, which quickly turns into sobbing at the guilt-ridden realization of how fleeting that happiness can be. It is a generational absurdity in which my Irish Catholic family proudly carries on the tradition: to indulge in the pleasures of life with as much zeal as to revel in the depressing details of its darkness. There’s a lot of emotion, all the time.
That is, the whole time I watched Belfast, I could not help but think, my God, my parents are going to love this movie. That’s a compliment. I think that’s why it’s going to win the big Oscar: fantastic cast, respected and well-liked director, story that makes you feel deep, but also feel good. In addition, it took home the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, as did previous winners of Best Picture Nomadeland and Green book. But that’s also why the film’s pole position status is already pissing people off.
After two years with the Academy’s quote-uncite “finally get it right” when it comes to best films, with historic victories for indie game changers Parasite and Nomadeland, Belfast seems like a boring, all too expected front runner. While it’s obviously not a fringe challenger with provocative ideas from auteurs leading the way to the cinema of the future, I think the criticism from its opponents may be reductive.
The film follows three generations of a Belfast working-class family whose lives have been forever changed by the escalating violence in the neighborhood where they have spent their entire lives. It begins with showing the children of the community playing in the streets, kicking around with balls, jumping and pretending to be sword-fighting knights. But frivolity turns into a threat with a single hat. Or in this case the explosion of a Molotov cocktail.
“Get the kids inside!” a worried mother screams as a battalion of protesters storm the streets, throwing stones and several firebombs through windows, into cars and at anyone trapped in the melee. The trash can lid that had been used by young Buddy (Jude Hill) during the innocent game of pretending moments before is now being used by his mother (Caitriona Balfe) to divert stones thrown at them as she hurries Buddy in safety.
Sequences like this have been made even more shocking because they are largely seen through Buddy’s perspective. That prism is also what gives the film its innocence and its humor.
“Sequences like this have been made even more shocking because they are largely seen through Buddy’s perspective. That prism is also what gives the film its innocence and its humor.”
There’s always a risk of crashing and burning in a sea of unbearable haste when historical tragedy appears through a child’s eyes, but Branagh has such a delicate hand on it, and what he hopes to say about the loss of this innocence – and desperate to hold on to it – that it works, especially with an all-around great child actor performance from Hill.
The film is also mostly in black and white. There is a consistent line about how fleeing to the movies is a soothing distraction in trying times. It has made the most exhausted among us roll their eyes at how directly it goes for the classic Academy taste, especially black and white films that fetishize the film’s magic as healing art (see: The artist). Add Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as wise grandparents and it may seem as if Belfast is designed to appeal to the most basic, unimaginative Oscar voters.
There’s a bit of the “cool kids smoking in the alley behind the school” cynicism and bitterness about it. Yes, it does check out obvious academic-friendly boxes. But it is also a film about the insecurities of society, family, place, connection and youth when an outside trauma arrives and forces you to confront what it all means and what you can or cannot survive without. It certainly feels familiar now.
In any case, as he should in any movie, star Jamie Dornan, who plays Pa, performs an uplifting music track, a performance on par with – if not greater than – when he sang with seagulls in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.. It is at least worth the entrance fee.
You can see him recreate the performance at the film’s premiere here. All i can say is that i have seen it so many times while fantasizing about getting him to sing it for me at our future wedding that it’s a miracle that there’s even a newsletter you can read this week.
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