Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

By Fergus Whelan

By the time you read this review I am sure that many History Ireland readers will already have seen Kenneth Branagh’s latest movie, Belfast. This film is a homage to the city of his birth, the community of his boyhood and his much-loved Protestant working-class extended family. For those who have not yet watched it, do yourself a favour and go along to see it soon.

The film opens with a beautiful panorama of Belfast today. The story begins in August 1969 as Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy, navigates his bustling yet happy street and neighbourhood in total comfort and safety, exchanging hellos and banter with neighbours young and old. The peaceful scene begins to change with the sound of a distant rumble. Suddenly the pace changes, as the street is attacked by a howling mob throwing missiles and petrol bombs. The objective of the mob is to drive Catholic residents out of a neighbourhood where Protestants are in the majority. The start of the Troubles saw much such brutal intimidation, as sectarian elements on both sides drove Catholics and Protestants from the homes in which they had lived peacefully and in friendship with their neighbours. The barricades went up in working-class neighbourhoods in August 1969 and, while they have disappeared physically, today they remain in place psychologically and culturally in spite of 25 years of the peace process.

The film is shot mostly in black and white. This adds a particular authenticity, at least for those of us old enough to have watched the early Troubles unfold on our black-and-white television sets. For this reviewer the portrayal of life going on behind the barricades brought back memories. I was in Belfast in August ’69 behind barricades, albeit in the Catholic Falls Road area. All that was lacking in Branagh’s representation was the smell of petrol, which I ever after associated with those times in Belfast. Much of the soundtrack is Belfast’s own Van the Man at his soulful best. Even those who were appalled by Van’s nonsensical attitude to Covid restrictions may be reminded of his musical if not medical or social genius.

It is rare these days that we see the vicissitudes of working-class existence portrayed on the big screen. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan), the family breadwinner, must go to England for work, leaving Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe) alone with all the pressures of parenthood. The family are in serious financial difficulty, and it is she who must dodge and hide from the bill collectors. When Buddy is sucked into petty shoplifting, and later rioting and looting, she must deal with the situation on her own. Inevitably she becomes resentful and angry towards a husband who is not there when he is needed most.

On those odd weekends when Buddy’s father is at home, he is subject to intimidation and threats designed to send the message that if you don’t stand with your tribe you are putting your life and family in danger. As the problems, pressures, violence and intimidation mount, this loving family are driven close to breaking point. Buddy’s father believes that the family have a better chance of a future by getting out of Belfast and going to England. His mother (Caitriona Balfe) at first is determined to stay in the city, which is all she has ever known. Buddy himself throws a major tantrum when the possibility of leaving Belfast is raised.

Above: Buddy (Jude Hill) shares a joke with Granny (Judi Dench) and Pa (Ciarán Hinds).

Grandparents Judy Dench and Ciarán Hinds are an absolute delight. In their typical Belfast two-up two-down house, Granny holds court on the sofa in their tiny parlour as Pa mends leatherwork and advises Buddy on matters romantic in the even tinier backyard. All the while, Pa sits on the seat of the outdoor toilet. When the family goes to the cinema to see One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Branagh uses the gaudy technicolour of fantasy as a contrast to the drab greyness of everyday reality.

Above: Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy navigating his bustling yet happy street and neighbourhood in total comfort and safety, until violence erupts in August 1969.

One motif that is perhaps overused in film these days is the funeral scene. It may be that Branagh’s use of monochrome is the key but the funeral scene in Belfast works and is deeply affecting. By contrast, the party after the funeral is reminiscent of some of the more jubilant musical scenes in The Commitments, with beautiful Balfe tripping the light fantastic and Dornan serenading her with his cover version of Ever Lasting Love by Love Affair.

Above: Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe) and father (Jamie Dornan) tripping the light fantastic.

(All images: Rob Youngson)

In the final heart-rending scene, Judi Dench presses her head against the glass and delivers a line which it would not be right to reveal. As the credits roll, we find that Branagh has dedicated his work to Belfast, those who left, those who stayed and those who were lost forever. It is reported that when Belfast had its first showing in the city many of the audience of a certain age left the cinema in tears. One need not be from Belfast to react to this fine film in the same way.

This is a film about ordinary decent people who are content to live their lives in their native city in harmony with their neighbours. They are confronted by forces, circumstances and not-so-decent people, making that simple wish impossible.

Fergus Whelan is the author of May tyrants tremble: the life of William Drennan (Irish Academic Press, 2020) and a lifelong trade unionist.


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