Kenneth Branagh's Oscar Contender 'Belfast' Is Surface-Level Nostalgia

The film is being pegged as an Oscar frontrunner, but can it win?

Focus Features
Focus Features
Focus Features

Kenneth Branagh winks to the audience throughout his new directorial effort Belfast, the story of a Protestant family very similar to his own trying to make the decision whether to leave their home of Belfast as rioting erupts during The Troubles. It’s also an origin story for Branagh himself. His stand-in Buddy (Jude Hill, who projects rosy cheeks even though the movie is in black and white) is a wee lad captivated by cinema, his eyes lighting up upon the sight of Raquel Welch and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There’s a brief shot where he’s reading a Thor comic book, a nod to the fact that Branagh will go on to direct Thor.

If that self reference seems a little bit precious, it’s in the spirit of the rest of Belfast, which, despite its subject matter, aims for the warm and fuzzy above all else. It’s a movie that knows it is a crowd pleaser, an honor it has already won by being named the Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice, usually a bellwether of potential Oscar success. Thus, Belfast comes into theaters this weekend as the presumptive frontrunner, a burden for a messy movie with a personal spin and big ambition.

Branagh opens on a series of color shots of present-day Belfast as Van Morrison, the Northern Irish rocker whose work makes up much of the soundtrack, croons. As the camera moves over a wall, Branagh cuts to 1969 and black and white takes over. The crisp, monochromatic color scheme puts Belfast in direct conversation with Roma, another film named after a locale that explores a director’s childhood. It does seem that Branagh took heavy inspiration from Alfonso Cuarón’s portrait of his youth, in a way that does Belfast no favors. Whereas in Roma, Cuarón examined his experiences through the distance of adulthood, the prism of class, and the viewpoint of the domestic worker that tended to his family, Branagh is squarely focused on his own perspective.

For a movie that uses The Troubles in Ireland as the basis for its narrative, you’d be hard pressed to find a real explanation for why the violence was unfolding. Branagh has boiled it down to a simple Protestants versus Catholics dichotomy, a child’s eye view certainly, but one that does a disservice to its audience, as well as the place Branagh is trying to honor.

In the opening moments, Buddy is playing happily on his block when violence erupts, turning his playground into a barricade. While his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) fret over what to do, Buddy remains blissfully consumed with more minute concerns, including whether he’ll get the attention of the blonde girl at school, receiving advice on the matter from his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). Meanwhile, his Pa (Dornan) is away in England on business frequently, leaving his Ma (Balfe) struggling at home with tax problems and the fear that her boys will be hurt in the chaos. Despite her concerns, Ma is resistant to leave Belfast out of loyalty to her homeland, and a notion that things can maybe go back to the way they used to be when their street was a sanctuary.

Despite the affection with which Branagh clearly approaches his hometown, the question of whether or not to leave never has the intended dramatic tension, despite the strong performances from Balfe and Dornan, who smolder at each other when they aren’t bickering. The family at the center of the story is clearly luckier than so many others nearby. They’re afforded an exit path, and it’s clear they are going to take it even when the script presents them waffling.

Branagh tries to pair his pint-sized protagonist’s moments of joy-his trips to the cinema, the moment his gorgeous parents dance to “Everlasting Love” together-with the harsh realities of living in a society coming apart. But in its carefully choreographed nostalgia, it is all too twinkly eyed to make much of an impact.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.


Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.


Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.


BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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