After two years of COVID-19, the world has experienced many celebrities’ sentimental self-reflections. Some concluded that quarantining in their multi-million dollar home was akin to a prison sentence; some decided to sing John Lennon together. Some, however, dug a bit deeper to share heartfelt, personal stories.
Kenneth Branagh does this in Belfast, a wholesome walk down memory lane (albeit a lane occupied by the British Army and subject to regular riots).
It’s August 1969, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A young boy plays in an alley, surrounded by friends. He brandishes a wooden sword and a garbage bin lid, symbols of playful innocence. A message reaches Buddy (played by a superbly naïve Jude Hill): it’s dinnertime. He sets off for home. Suddenly, a riot breaks out – Protestants invade Buddy’s street, lobbing petrol bombs through Catholic homes’ windows and hurling curses. This is just a taste of The Troubles, Northern Ireland’s 30-year-long period of geopolitical conflict.
Simply put, The Troubles were conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Irish nationalists (mostly Catholics) wanted the British-ruled Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom. Loyalists, largely Protestant, wanted the North to stay in the UK. In Buddy’s case, strident Protestants were looking to drive out Catholics and scare passive Protestants into cooperation.
Branagh has said that Belfast is semi-autobiographical, and his love for this community emanates from the screen. When the riot dissipates, Buddy surveys the damage, wandering his street in stupor. Paving stones and drain grates are shattered and a blackened car smoulders nearby. Yet we see the street’s residents rebuilding it, together. Their sense of community outweighs their terror.
Buddy’s family is tight-knit: he has a confused yet kind brother, Will (Lewis McAskie); Granny (a warm-hearted Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds, delivering an inspiring performance) visit regularly, exchanging wry remarks which deepen our affection for them. Counselling Buddy on talking to girls, Pop muses “Women are very mysterious”. Granny, overhearing this, interjects: “And women can smash yer face in, too, mister!” Buddy’s parents are Ma and Pa. Played by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, these two are, as Amanda Dobbins elegantly said on my favourite film podcast, The Big Picture, “The two hottest parents to ever walk the face of the earth.” Seriously, it’s unrealistic – I watched this movie with my mother and the first thing she said afterwards was “Nobody was that beautiful in the sixties.” Yet this is indicative of Belfast’s biggest problem.
The issue with exploring a complicated sectarian conflict from a child’s perspective is its unavoidable (and unabashed) romanticisation. Branagh can’t help but see the anarchic world of The Troubles through rose-coloured glasses.
Branagh shows that the British Army was sent into Belfast after the riot to maintain peace. Troops construct barricades and monitor streets. But Branagh glosses over the ten deaths which occurred that day, including that of a nine-year-old boy shot by the local (Protestant) police.
This criticism is not an encouragement to depict graphic violence. However, given the Protestant Branagh family’s position, the issue of Protestant-incited violence could have had more air time. It lingers in the background for the most part, simply a canary in the coal mine of Buddy’s childhood.
Belfast touches upon other themes, but doesn’t truly grapple with them. Pa is regularly absent, he likes to drink and gamble. Ma is left to mind the boys – between that, struggling financially and deliberating about leaving Belfast, she’s very composed, as is Pa. Buddy obviously loves his family, as Branagh does – and it’s not unusual for a kid to see their parents as flawless. But the film’s disengagement from the more sombre themes excludes it from the extreme-sociopolitical-issue-from-the-perspective-of-a-child hall of fame, where stories like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird reside.
Belfast’s cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos) adds realism and nostalgia. Intelligent depth-of-field choices and creative angles mean that despite the film’s grayscale palette, its visuals do not get tired.
Despite being Protestant, Buddy’s family didn’t riot. Belfast advocates acceptance and understanding. When Buddy worries that his romance with classmate Catherine won’t work out as she’s a Catholic, Pa says: “That wee girl can be a practising Hindu, or a Southern Baptist or a Vegetarian Anti-Christ. But if she’s kind and she’s fair, and you two respect each other, she and her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.” The sincerity is touching, but this is as philosophical as the film gets.
Branagh constructs a wholesome community story from the wreckage of The Troubles, however what lies beneath are many sinister realities which the film largely ignores. The question is whether or not this is admissible in the face of a story told from the dewy-eyed perspective of a child. There’s only one way to find out – decide for yourself.
Belfast is now showing in all major cinemas in Sydney.