So over the holidays me and the fam had the opportunity to watch Kenneth Branagh’s new film Belfast, which he based on his own memories of growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Branagh was born into a Protestant family that fled Belfast for England around 1969-70 or so, when Branagh was about 10 or 11 (if I remember correctly), following the eruption of what came to be known as “the Troubles,” the cycle of violence related to the longstanding dispute over Catholic civil rights in Northern Ireland. We streamed the film at our home with my Belfast-born and bred mother in attendance, who was visiting for Christmas.
My mother is Catholic and was raised in the predominantly Catholic area of west Belfast, just off the Falls Road, so it goes without saying that she had a different perspective than Branagh, who as a Protestant was raised in a Protestant majority area that had some Catholic residents who were therefore a distinct minority in their neighborhood. I should note, however, that my mother left Belfast for the U.S. in 1963 (at the tender age of 19), about six years before the Troubles, and Branagh’s story, commenced in August of 1969. But based on what mom’s told me of her experience growing up there in a Catholic family through the 1950s and early ’60s, it seems to me that Branagh’s portrayal of Northern Ireland’s main political dispute as suddenly erupting into violence, seemingly out of nowhere, lacks a great deal of context.
Now keep in mind that by no means do I claim to be some kind of expert on Northern Ireland’s history and politics just because that’s where my mom is from and I’ve visited family there on a few occasions over the years. (I was last there as a teenager and that, my friends, was a very, very long time ago.) But just based on what little knowledge I’ve gleaned from my mother and relatives overseas, a couple of things struck me as a little odd.
“There is no our side and their side of our street, at least there didn’t used to be,” laments the father (ably played by a stolid Jamie Dornan) of the little boy through whose eyes we are told this family’s story. That observation seems a little strange. Mom has told stories of her and her sisters standing up and pelting their local cinema’s screen with food, various detritus, curses, and stiffly upright middle fingers whenever Queen Elizabeth II’s visage was displayed as the obligatory “God Save the Queen” came over the sound system, which always preceded the preview of coming attractions. That was well over a decade before the Troubles. One has to wonder where Mr. Branagh–the “Pa” in the movie is based on Branagh’s late father–had been during his 30-something years of existence.
Branagh’s family may have had no truck with the Catholics in their own neighborhood, but there was most certainly a very explicit sense of “us” and “them” that, by 1969, had pervaded Northern Ireland’s politics for decades, ever since Ireland’s six northeastern-most counties, with their Protestant majorities and Catholic minorities, were partitioned off as “Northern Ireland” in 1921 and kept under British rule, following Ireland’s war for independence and subsequent civil war. The rest of Ireland, meanwhile, with its Catholic majority, became a self-governing republic. Northern Ireland’s Catholics had protested that they had been effectively relegated to second class status almost from the very beginning. Prominent among their list of grievances was that they had been systematically excluded from certain jobs, particularly civil service jobs. That had profound implications for public and social services in Northern Ireland’s Catholic communities, and for their economic situation overall.
Surely, Pa Branagh was aware of all that, which renders his observation naive at best, or at the very least tone deaf.
That leads me to another claim that Pa makes during the course of the film that struck me as strange–that the source of the conflict was the religious differences between Protestants and Catholics. That seems to be more the kind of superficial assessment that you would expect from a casual outside observer who had absolutely zero knowledge of the conflict’s politics and history, rather than someone who had been born and raised in Northern Ireland and had lived there well into their 30s by 1969. The conflict was always political in nature, a brute struggle for raw power, with the fault lines naturally delineating the Protestants as British unionists and the Catholics as Irish republicans for historical reasons. To my understanding, theological differences between Protestantism and Catholicism as such never played much of a role at all.
But the above quibbles never prevented me from enjoying this film. The main dramatic thrust of Branagh’s story, after all, is a family’s struggle to choose between remaining in the only country they’ve ever known to be home even as it spirals downwards into an abyss of violence and chaos, or leaving for another, stranger, place in order to secure a more peaceful future for their young sons. It’s a touching story, one that many people all over the world, unfortunately, could certainly relate to. And though I think it’s usually too obvious to even state, I will remind the reader that one should never expect to glean any accurate history from the movies. For that, you need to do the much more difficult work of seeking out reliable sources and doing your own research.
And this movie has a great cast. As the child of a northern Irish mother, I can reliably attest that Caitriona Balfe is the very quintessence of northern Irish motherhood. Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents are particularly moving, especially in their scenes with the story’s young protagonist, played by the undeniably charming Jude Hill. Your heart would have to be made of ice as thick as a glacier for it not to melt.
Though the film’s black and white cinematography has a kind of arthouse, Truffautesque feel about it, this movie is really just a straightforward tale about people who genuinely love and care for each other having to make tough choices when it seems that the whole world has gone stark raving mad. And for that, Belfast is a most welcome and refreshing diversion.