Director: Kenneth Branagh (UK). Year of Release: 2021
Belfast, current day. A camera sweeps past the yellow cranes at the Harland and Wolff shipyards, past the Titanic museum and some unimpressive modern architecture. The sky is pale blue smothered with dark clouds. The camera comes to a wall, peeks over the wall and suddenly we are in black and white. A caption appears “Belfast, 15th August 1969”. All colour drains from the screen.
Buddy’s mother is calling him in for his tea. She asks the neighbours if they’ve seen him – it’s one of those streets where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The camera finally pans to a young blond lad with a toothy smile, wooden sword in one hand, dustbin lid shield in the other. Suddenly, a Molotov cocktail is thrown at the camera. Buddy’s mum retrieves him, using his shield to ward off rocks.
The Troubles are usually shown either from the largely Nationalist/Catholic West Belfast or the largely Loyalist/Protestant East. Here we’re in North Belfast, in which Catholics and Protestants lived side-by-side, although some people are trying to change this. Loyalist mobs are burning Catholics out of their homes, and threatening Protestants who don’t join in the rampage. Buddy’s family are paid a visit telling them that their support – either physical or financial – is expected.
For most of the time, Buddy’s father is working as a joiner over the water in London. Money is tight and his wife believes that he’s wasting much of what he does get on gambling. The current arrangement leaves her bringing up the kids largely on her own, but the increase of violence and threat to their kids leaves him considering upping sticks and taking them all to Britain. But she’s known nothing but Belfast and doesn’t want to leave her friends and family.
When Belfast was first released in the UK, a review did the rounds which accused it of being the equivalent of a film about white liberals in apartheid South Africa or Israelis in occupied Palestine. Belfast Protestants may have their problems, it said, but concentrating on them trivialises the problems of the Catholics who were being firebombed, jailed and killed. Why didn’t Branagh make a film about the Republican resistance in West Belfast?
There’s a grain of truth in the criticism, but I find it excessive for various reasons. Firstly, to criticise a film for being something that it never set out to be can only get you so far. Kenneth Branagh – who grew up In a Protestant family in North Belfast – has made an autobiographical film about Protestants in North Belfast. Yes, he could make a film about Catholics elsewhere in the city, and maybe he will one day, but this isn’t it. Belfast should be allowed to succeed or fail on its own merits.
Secondly, Belfast Protestants are not comparable to white South Africans who clearly benefited from Apartheid. Northern Irish Protestants were, in Eamonn McCann’s great phrase “tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence.” Their conditions were slightly better than those of their Catholic neighbours, but they weren’t living in luxury. When people in the film talk about unemployment in Belfast being the highest in Britain, this means Protestants out of work almost as much as Catholics.
So, anyone arguing that the story of Buddy’s/Branagh’s family doesn’t deserve to be told is essentially saying that there are some working class communities which should be denied a voice. Sure, there may be stories of more desperate suffering across the city, but if you are receiving threats from your “own” community, you can hardly be charged of complacently enabling this suffering.
This is not to say that the film is politically faultless. The British Army get a relatively easy ride. Sent in to maintain the existing anti-Catholic discrimination in housing and voting rights, they are portrayed in this film as a benign presence, at first making slightly irritating border checks, later protecting Buddy’s father from his bigoted neighbours. This is in part a result of only seeing events from the Protestant viewpoint – something which is almost inevitable after Catholic families had been systematically driven out of the area.
I’m also not convinced that showing the film largely through Buddy’s eyes works dramatically. It infantilises a serious and dangerous situation and allows superficial statements like “it’s all about religion, isn’t it?” to pass unchallenged. On one level, the film tries to let us know about the beginning of The Troubles. On another, we are invited to share Buddy’s reaction that it’s all way too complicated to understand.
For all this, it would be wrong to say either that the film has no political analysis, or even that its political line is the most important thing. Friends, who don’t go to bed reading the latest copy of An Phoblacht, have said that they learned many things that they didn’t know, from which I presume that Belfast succeeds in challenging the default narrative that the Troubles are all the fault of the IRA.
Besides which, when did we start judging films purely on whether they accord to our preferred political manifesto? Belfast should be judged first and foremost on artistic terms, Which means saying that yes, it is overly sentimental (though not as much as I was fearing), but it does tell an engaging story about people we can care for. It’s not Casablanca, but very few films are.