Had the team behind Kenneth Branagh's Belfast been told, just eight months ago, that they would be going into the Oscars with seven nominations, the celebrations would have been deafening.
Awards season is a peculiar business. As the awards loom, Ken and crew will be disappointed to find themselves the favourite in none of those races. There is every chance the film could go home with not a single Oscar. Call it the curse of the early favourite. Others have been down this path. More will follow.
An early North American double whammy transformed expectations. Belfast arrived at the Telluride festival in Toronto with little buzz around it. Branagh has had, let us be frank, a fitful career as director. His most recent film, an adaption of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, had been edited down to 95 minutes and slipped onto Disney+ to atrocious reviews. He had been praised for his Shakespeare adaptations, but non-Bard features such as Sleuth and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had been similarly trashed.
The reception at Telluride, a festival that has launched dozens of Oscar winners, was, however, little short of ecstatic. After the standing ovation died down, the reviews and awards buzz frothed up. “Belfast is beautiful. Incredibly touching,” Clayton Davis, awards editor at Variety, raved. “It’s the first movie this year that I think can win best picture.”
The film then moved on to the Toronto International Film Festival where it scored one of the most reliable indicators of Oscar success. Over the last decade, every winner of the People’s Choice at that event has gone on to secure an Oscar nomination for best picture. Choice winners such as 12 Years a Slave, Nomadland and Green Book (until then, largely ignored) went on to win the prize. It was, in 2015, the People’s Choice that marked Lenny Abrahamson’s Room as a player and launched a famous year for the Irish at the Academy Awards.
Belfast was installed as marginal favourite with the bookies and held that position for another two or three months. This was, after all, the sort of heart-warming picture that used to win Oscars in the olden days. Jude Hill plays a young tyke getting by in the eponymous city as the Troubles loom. Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench all seemed like potential acting nominees.
The nominations came pretty consistently. It scored six at the recently devalued – but still noticed – Golden Globe Awards. It registered twice with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG): for the ensemble and for Balfe. It was nominated for best feature at the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Bafta, the British Academy, put six its way.
Then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences delivered seven Oscar nominations. Caitríona Balfe must have been disappointed not to get a mention for best supporting actress, but Dench registered in that race. Úna Ní Dhonghaíle was unlucky not to get an editing nod.
But those seven nominations put it right up there with the most garlanded Irish films of all time. Branagh’s mentions for best original screenplay and best picture (as producer) secured him the all-time record for nominations in most categories over a career.
Yet there was a problem. Belfast just couldn’t seem to win. It did manage to grab best screenplay at a Golden Globes event that took place away from television cameras. But SAG handed best ensemble to the rising CODA. The DGA gave best film to Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.
Bafta, one of the film’s two home awards ceremonies, gave Belfast only one of its famous mask statuettes and that was for a category – best British film – that does not have a corresponding race at the Oscars (as a Northern Ireland Screen production, Belfast counts as both British and Irish).
Colm Bairéad’s An Cailín Ciúin, the film that beat it to best film at the Iftas, is a fine drama with momentum behind it, but, if Belfast can’t win when competing against only Irish films, how can it hope to triumph against the world’s best (in theory, anyway) at the Academy Awards? Three wins at the eccentric Critics’ Choice awards – two of them in categories not covered by the Oscars – a day later did not do much to restore confidence.
Bookies odds are not particularly reliable for non-sporting events, but, for what it's worth, Belfast advances to the Oscars as the favourite in none of its categories. Van Morrison is 12/1 for best song. Judi Dench is 25/1 for best supporting actress. Ciarán Hinds is 16/1 for best supporting actor.
The film is, however, still competitive in best original screenplay. Our bookmakers have the film, at 15/8, as second favourite to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza.
What went wrong? A myth spills around Oscar circle circles concerning a supposed “curse of the early favourite”. Get your nose in front too soon and the voters end up getting sick of you. In recent years, Boyhood, Roma and La La Land all went through that sort of arc.
It didn’t help that the film’s US box office was modest. Belfast managed to take more than twice as much in the UK and Ireland than it did in the vastly larger North American market.
All these excuses will be forgotten if Belfast does pull off a surprise win on March 28th. And that is certainly possible. Best picture has, thanks to a proportional voting system, proved the most volatile of the major races in recent years and, a decent second favourite at 5/1, Belfast is positioned to slip in if The Power of the Dog, slow and steady since its premiere in Venice, stumbles at the very last fence.
Spotlight, Moonlight and Parasite all came from behind to win. Could Jane Campion’s embarrassment at the Critics’ Choice Awards – she was forced to apologise for an awkward joke concerning the Williams sisters – open the door for Belfast to triumph? Gentlemanly throughout, Branagh would surely not want to win that way. But all is fair in love and awards season.