Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ pushes ‘Outlander’ star Caitríona Balfe into the awards race

One of the buzziest titles to debut at this year’s Telluride Film Festival was Sir Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical drama “Belfast.” The black-and-white drama based on Branagh’s childhood in 1969 Belfast during the Troubles was warmly embraced by audiences throughout the weekend and had multiple Oscar pundits suggesting the Focus Features release could go very far into awards season.

“Belfast” “strikes me as one of the few across-the-board Oscar contenders to emerge this year so far,” Scott Feinberg wrote for The Hollywood Reporter

“‘Belfast’ is a touching and moving portrait of childhood and family and the first movie I’ve seen this year that can be a best picture winner,” echoed Clayton Davis for Variety.

Added Deadline’s Pete Hammond, “Belfast” is “the name I hear most when I ask, ‘What is your favorite so far?’ here. Kenneth Branagh’s beautiful and personal coming of age in Northern Ireland family drama seems certain to be generating lots of awards talk before and after its November 12 opening. Former Academy President Sid Ganis who, as usual, is soaking up the cinema in Telluride, told me he thinks it is one of the best films he has ever seen.”

Set in the summer of 1969, “Belfast” stars newcomer Jude Hill as Buddy, the stand-in for Branagh, a young boy who is coming of age during a particularly tumultuous and violent period in Northern Ireland as Protestants and Catholics engaged in a civil war. The family drama stars “50 Shades of Grey” lead Jamie Dornan as Buddy’s father and “Outlander” favorite Caitríona Balfe as his mother. Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds play Buddy’s grandparents. All four of the adult performers are strong, but Balfe and Hinds are potentially the most serious awards contenders for their work. (Balfe is an ostensible lead, but it remains to be seen in which category Focus will decide to campaign her; Hinds would be a supporting actor contender.) Even more lukewarm reviews of the film singled out both performers. 

Balfe is “terrific,” Indiewire critic David Ehrlich wrote in his mixed-negative review. “Branagh is wise to put the film’s most pivotal speech on her shoulders.” While Hinds, Ehrlich added, “is the rare actor so magnificent that he can endow trailer-ready inspirational dialogue with the weight of lived history while sitting on an outdoor toilet.”

“Belfast” has already drawn comparisons to “Roma” because of its subject and cinematography, but its loving portrait of a family in transition also recalls other Best Picture nominees such as “Boyhood,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Minari.” All three of those films eventually earned acting Oscars for key supporting players, something that could help Hinds or Balfe (should she wind up in the supporting class) come next year.

As for Branagh, the beloved actor (who appeared at multiple Telludie screenings and was warmly embraced throughout the festival) has received five Oscar nominations in his career across acting, writing, and directing. But it has been a decade since he was last nominated (for 2011’s My Week with Marilyn). With “Belfast,” Branagh would be a possibility in the directing, original screenplay, and Best Picture categories.

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