Belfast: Oscar-Bait or Genuine Masterpiece?

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It’s a perfect example of capitalism at play when big budgets are spent on indulgent films designed only to bag an Oscar.

Surely such movies are shallow and unworthy of our attention? It’s why so many Oscar-winning movies fail at the box office – we need only look at Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker for examples of this. But, when I went to see Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, the cinema was packed as if it were a pre-Covid Summer blockbuster.

I originally chose to see Belfast, not because I was lured by the seven Academy Award nominations, nor particularly because I’m interested in the history of Belfast, but because I was missing the cinema. The ninety-eight-minute coming-of-age drama seemed a better choice than Uncharted, starring Tom Holland, and Branagh’s other recent work, the controversially cast murder mystery Death on the Nile – any movie featuring Armie Hammer isn’t exactly going to be my first choice.

I wasn’t expecting much. Most Oscar-nominated films (especially films, like Belfast, produced through ‘Oscarbation’) tend to sport the same superficial tropes: depression, film form balancing on the border of artistic whilst maintaining Hollywood-continuity, disadvantaged characters, grim elements of history and a cast and crew that have previously seen some Oscar-success. But by the time I’d left the popcorn scented air of screen five in Lancaster’s Vue, I was in awe.

Without a doubt, Belfast is ‘Oscar-Baity’. The narrative follows the perspective of Buddy, a working-class kid living in Belfast during the late 1960s when the tensions between Catholics and Protestants were reaching a peak. It comes as no surprise that the film has melancholic undertones, nevertheless, there are moments of poignant joy.

The best artists know to find hope and despair in every scene, and Kenneth Branagh does this wonderfully. Family and community warmth are weaved in with the terror of religious riots and the despair of loss, creating a movie which can spark laughter with a clever joke just as quickly as it can have you wiping away your tears.

Although Belfast is deliberately artistic and experimental, it’s not to the point where it would be considered an arthouse film. This is obvious in the long takes, the use of black and white contrasted with richly saturated moments, and poignant framing and lighting which are not solely used to create superficial aesthetic beauty, but for specific intent.

A close-up black and white shot of Buddy’s grandmother (Judi Dench), with the richly colourful reflection of a play shown through her glasses, made me audibly gasp in the cinema. As well as being a visually stunning shot, it conveys the atmosphere of 1960s Belfast where entertainment provided an escape from the black-and-white gloom.

The film hones a star-cast, including Judi Dench, Colin Morgan and Jamie Dornan, whose ‘Oscarbation’ role is much better than in his role of Christian Grey. Each performance, especially Judie Hill’s as Buddy, is naturalistic and expressive. The characters, the streets of Belfast, the script, all come to life under the cast’s talents.

The relationships between the characters are presented so vividly, and although it displays symptoms of Oscar-Bait, we have to ask ourselves if this makes Belfast any less impactful. After all, is not every film designed for a particular effect? What makes wanting to earn an award any less worthy than wanting to make a large amount of money?

The fact that Branagh’s work has been nominated for seven Academy Awards shows that Belfast has succeeded in its aims, and in my opinion should be praised for reaching its intentions. The fact that Belfast was designed for success does not make its success less worthy: it is still heartwarming, sad, comedic, and beautiful. Belfast has also managed to achieve what not many Oscar-nominated movies have…moderate success at the box office. Belfast has grossed $30.2 million worldwide as of the 20th of February 2022, already succeeding its $25 million budget.

So yes, fine, Belfast may be Oscar-Bait, but it doesn’t make it any less of a masterpiece.

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