Film review: Belfast
Worth watching portrayal of previously airbrushed workers’ unity
Niall Mulholland, East London Socialist Party
Kenneth Branagh’s semi-biographical film opens with images of modern-day Belfast, and then moves back in time (in black and white) to 15 August 1969, and the soundtrack of Van Morrison.
Most of the film is from nine-year-old Buddy’s (Jude Hill) point of view. He has all the distractions of a boy – a crush on a schoolgirl friend, ambitions to be a footballer, trying incompetently to steal chocolate from a corner shop – while all around him the city descends into sectarian conflict.
Buddy’s father (Jimmy Dornan) works as a joiner in England, is heavily in debt, and returns home every few weeks, leaving his mother (Caitríona Balfe) to bring up Buddy and his older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie).
The close-knit Protestant family includes Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), who is sick with a disease caused by working as a miner near Leicester. Their working-class house has an outside toilet, like many at the time. The family finds escape at the movies, where we see, for a short spell, colour on the screen.
Light and dark
The opening scene has all the light and dark that pervades Belfast. Buddy plays with his bin-lid shield and a wooden sword on his busy and friendly working-class Victorian street.
The sunny day is shattered by a rioting mob that has come to burn out the street’s minority of Catholics. The residents resist the intruders.
A barricade is erected at the end of the street and manned by ‘vigilantes’. British troops, ordered into Northern Ireland the day before by the Harold Wilson Labour government, smash through the barricade, but it is set up again.
Critics have found Belfast sentimental, a ‘chocolate box’ version of events. The film does have its weaknesses, and not just that it can be mawkish.
There are passing references to the civil rights struggle, but no real context – no explanation about the 50 years of Unionist state misrule and repression of Catholics. Nor is there any examination of why many Protestant working-class people had fears and concerns for their future, which were whipped up by bigoted politicians.
But whatever its weaknesses, the scenes of courageous efforts by working-class Protestant and Catholic neighbours to stop sectarian attacks ripping their communities apart – an aspect of ‘Troubles’ history that has been largely airbrushed out of most accounts – if for no other reason, does Belfast credit and means it deserves to be widely seen.
Local ‘defence committees’ and ‘peace patrols’ sprang up in many parts of Belfast and beyond in 1969, as Catholics and Protestants living in ‘mixed areas’ instinctively drew together to oppose sectarian pogroms. Trade union shop stewards in the industrial workplaces played a key role in organising workers against attempts by bigots to divide workers.
Tragically, the leadership of the labour and trade union movement did not draw all these actions together in a powerful force to push back the bigots, and to unite workers around a fight for jobs and decent homes for all, and against the sectarian ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ bosses. An all-out civil war was avoided in 1969 and the early 1970s, but thousands were forced out of their homes, hundreds killed and sectarian divisions greatly enhanced.
By the film’s end, the local thug who tries to wean Buddy’s brother Will into his emerging loyalist gang is on the ascendance. He threatens Buddy’s father, who refuses to take a sectarian ‘side’. The family is faced with a heart-rending decision to stay in Belfast or leave for England, putting behind sectarian strife and debts but also close relatives.
For all its limitations, Belfast strikes a chord. As the lights went up at the cinema showing I attended in east London, there were tearful people from Ireland, north and south, of all ages.