When you’re not being dazzled by how gorgeous Jamie Dornan and Catriona Balfe are in Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film Belfast, you’re presented with a slice-of-life tale about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Though, if we’re being honest, it’s more of a sliver than a slice. This period of history is often misunderstood and misinterpreted.
In Belfast, a family with a charismatic son named Buddy debates leaving their hometown as it becomes more and more violent. Let’s see if I can explain The Troubles better than my AP European History class *coughs* years ago. That should, unfortunately, be a pretty low bar to clear. Shoutout to American public schools. Alright. The conflict was between loyalists who wished for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and republicans who wished to be united with Ireland and independent from British rule. It lasted for decades, from 1966 to 1998 at least.
It is often characterized as a religious conflict—because the republicans were Catholic and the loyalists were Protestant—but it’s much more complicated than whether or not you go to a priest or a minister. Religion played a role, but it wasn’t the reason for The Troubles.
The film is set in 1969. That year, British Armed Forces were deployed to Northern Ireland as part of Operation Banner. That operation, by the way, lasted until 2007 and is Britain’s longest military operation. Earlier that summer, civil rights marches calling for an end to anti-Catholic discrimination and police brutality ended in violence. The army built walls called “peace lines” to separate predominantly Protestant neighborhoods from predominantly Catholic neighborhoods. We see a little of that in Belfast.
Typically when we see The Troubles portrayed in fiction, at least in my experience, the violence is being perpetrated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but that’s not the case in Belfast. In this story, the danger that Buddy’s family wishes to escape is primarily from Protestant loyalists, who formed paramilitary groups of their own called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Technically they are on the “same side” but, again, it’s more complex than that.
Belfast does not go very deep contextualizing this period of time politically. For one thing, it’s told from the perspective of a child who doesn’t fully understand the nuance of everything going on. It reminded me a lot of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird and the little boy in the holocaust film Life is Beautiful.
For another thing, the child’s parents are in a position of relative privilege. They’re friendly with the British and local law enforcement. As Protestants, the characters in the film are on the side of the establishment. They may not participate in violence themselves and they may be tolerant of other religions and ethnic groups, but they’ve basically chosen to choose no side in the conflict.
The film is pretty clearly about Branagh’s real childhood. His father and Jamie Dornan’s character had the same job. The primary school that Buddy goes to is Branagh’s alma mater. Buddy and his grandmother attend a performance of A Christmas Carol at a local theater—a transformative experience that Branagh spoke about in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph. There’s even a moment where Buddy is seen reading a Thor comic, and Branagh directed the first Thor movie for Marvel Studios. I mean… come on!
If you are interested in this time period, you might also want to check out Derry Girls on Netflix about a group of Catholic teenagers growing up just North of Belfast in Derry, Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman about a family of one of The Disappeared, or auteur Steve McQueen’s Hunger about the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Belfast is a charming story set during The Troubles — but it comes from a pretty limited perspective and shouldn’t be the definitive history of the era by a long shot.
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