‘Belfast’ Campaigns Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as Supporting, Jude Hill Goes for Lead at Oscars (EXCLUSIVE)

Judi Dench can make history as the second oldest nominee for supporting actress ever, if she's nominated for Focus Features' awards frontrunner.

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features
Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The cast of Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” including Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, will follow young Jude Hill’s lead on the road to the Academy Awards. Variety has learned exclusively that Focus Features will campaign Hill for lead actor consideration during the awards season, with the rest of the cast going for supporting recognition.

Balfe and Dornan’s category submissions have been a question mark since the film’s debut at Telluride, riding the line between leading and supporting characters. Balfe, in many ways, has the more accessible and resonating role of the cast. Aside from delivering a beautifully orchestrated turn, it can easily be packaged with all the “Oscar clip” bells and whistles that you see in award-winning contenders. Her star has been growing for years now; she appeared in best picture nominee “Ford v Ferrari” (2019) and has gained a massive following as Claire Randall on Starz’s hit series “Outlander,” set to return in 2022.

The studio hopes her co-star Dench, who plays the loving and scene-stealing Granny, will be nominated alongside her. She’s been an Academy favorite, earning seven career noms, including one win in supporting actress for her role as Queen Elizabeth in best picture winner “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). By the time nominations are announced on Feb. 8, Dench will be 87 years old. If nominated, that will make her the second-oldest supporting actress nominee in history, surpassing Ruby Dee (“American Gangster”) and behind Gloria Stuart (“Titanic”). Unfortunately, Dench will miss the record by 161 days.

Supporting actress is a category typically welcoming of two actresses from the same film. In the past 93 years, 35 supporting actress lineups have included two or more co-stars, with 12 taking home the gold, most recently by Octavia Spencer for “The Help” (2011).

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Courtesy of Focus Features

Born in Belfast, Ireland, where the story takes place, Hinds has been a versatile actor for years, featuring memorable turns in Oscar-nominated films such as “There Will Be Blood” from Paul Thomas Anderson and “Munich” from Steven Spielberg. As Pop, a role originally offered to recent best actor winner Anthony Hopkins, Hinds looks to have finally found his Oscar dance. It could mirror the winning strategy for past respected character actors, such as Jim Broadbent when he won for “Iris” (2001), coincidentally also starring Dench.

Irish actor Dornan, who also grew up in the suburbs of Belfast, is terrific as Pa, channeling the desperation and earnest beats of a man urgently trying to support his family. Dornan has been shepherding an array of exciting roles the last few years, including his passionate musical turn in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” In comparison to supporting actress, two men from the same film have had trouble finding recognition, with only 20 instances in the Academy archives. However, three of those have happened in the last four years alone (with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Irishman” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”). While there are a couple of films hoping for a double-dip (i.e. “The French Dispatch,” “The Power of the Dog” and “Mass”), “Belfast” seems to be the strongest candidate at the moment, given the film’s frontrunner status.

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Playing the wide-eyed and adorable Buddy, Hill’s effortless work is in many ways the beating heart of the film. If nominated for his role, Hill, at 11, would be the second-youngest actor ever nominated since Jackie Cooper, who was recognized for Norman Taurog’s classic comedy “Skippy” (1930-31) at the fourth Oscar ceremony. It should be noted, Cooper is the only child ever to be nominated for best actor, and this year is highly competitive for leading men.

Aside from the SAG Awards, every significant awards group has the autonomy to vote for an actor in any category they choose, regardless of how they’re submitted. So we’ve seen switcharoos like Kate Winslet in “The Reader” (2008), which she won in lead, after winning supporting at all the televised award shows prior. Last year, we almost saw it with Daniel Kaluuya in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which is explained by Lakeith Stanfield’s correlating nom.

“Belfast” is headed to the Mill Valley and Middleburg film festivals, where writer and director Branagh will receive tributes and honors. Looking strong for Oscar recognition in writing and directing, he has received five nominations in his career, all across different categories (director, adapted screenplay, actor, supporting actor and live-action short), likely adding one more to it.

“Belfast” will open in theaters on Nov. 12.

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