Queen's Policy Engagement

Belfast (2021): Orange and Blue Remembered Hills

Dr Gordon Gillespie offers some critical reflections on Kenneth Branagh's much talked about new film 'Belfast'.

Belfast (2021): Orange and Blue Remembered Hills

15 August ’69 and young Buddy, living in a working-class Protestant area in north Belfast, comes face to face with the realities of sectarian conflict and an impending move by the family to England as his father searches for a better job to pay off the family debts.

Belfast is essentially the story of the outbreak of the Troubles told from a child’s point of view. It comes from the perspective of an unreliable narrator – Buddy in the film, Kenneth Branagh in real life. This is not history but Branagh’s recollection of what he thinks happened in August 1969 more than fifty years after the events. Unlike the actual events, which took place in vivid colour, Branagh’s film (fillum as it is Belfast) is largely shot in black and white which perhaps warns the viewer that this should not be taken as an accurate depiction of how things really happened but a selective recollection.

Events take place mainly in the Mountcollyer Street area in north Belfast but are framed at the start and end by scenes of Harland and Wolff’s giant cranes and throughout by references to Tottenham and Northern Ireland footballer Danny Blanchflower and songs from Van Morrison – all east Belfast born and bred – so there is an element of cultural appropriation here, but never mind they won’t care outside Belfast. In any event while Branagh, a Tottenham supporter (like myself), is keen to get in the Blanchflower references it would have been more likely that the graffiti on the wall would have referred to Manchester United’s George Best (also from east Belfast), then approaching the height of his footballing powers.

For most historians the scene where a proto-loyalist paramilitary talks of ‘cleansing the street’ of Catholics will be a cringe moment as the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ did not appear until the wars and events surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The street in which much of the action takes place also looks wrong – the street is too wide and some houses appear to be three stories – not Belfast’s famous red brick two-up, two-down houses and narrow streets. For those of us of a certain age and background even the back yard toilet looks suspiciously modern (‘I’m away to the yard’ had a different meaning in those days). Apparently much of the movie was shot in England because of Covid restrictions and like other Branaghisms in the movie the inaccuracy of the street location proves distracting. As with many other Troubles movies the riots are badly staged and one wonders whether it might not have been worth while employing a dedicated ‘riot co-ordinator’ to provide more authenticity.

While there is plenty of anger on display, as Catholic residents are forced out of the mainly Protestant street, what is missing is the element of widespread fear and the conviction in many of these Protestant neighbourhoods that they were about to be attacked by the IRA or invaded by the Irish Army from the South. Tension was already high following violence in July and Francis McCloskey and Samuel Devenney had died in Derry (the first in disputed circumstances and the latter as a result of being beaten by police officers). Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s notorious comments on 13 August that the Irish government, ‘can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’ enflamed the situation and convinced many Protestants (however unrealistically) than an invasion was imminent. During this period there was a palpable tension in the air and none of this comes across in a film where people rapidly go from taking part in riots to witty banter almost at the drop of a hat.

Branagh portrays street barricades as being manned by proto loyalist paramilitaries or by those forced to do so. Perhaps this was the case where Branagh lived but in east Belfast I recall my father (a World War II ex-serviceman) being one of many ordinary family men (and it was usually men) fearful of an attack coming from a nearby Catholic area. Branagh is right to see the early hand of paramilitary groups (especially what would become the UDA) in how this would develop but his depiction in the film is literally black and white. Colin Morgan (as the crassly named Billy Clanton – of OK Corral fame) is good as the nascent paramilitary member but is only prevented from being a mustachio twirling villain by the fact that he has a beard. Nevertheless, Morgan does portray the type of chancer who did appear at this time and found themselves involved in paramilitary groups providing such individuals with money and influence they little deserved.

Branagh seems incapable of not over-egging the pudding. In a ‘hell and damnation’ sermon in a church the minister is literally sweating with his fervour. When young Buddy takes an interest in a local girl it is inevitable that she comes from a Catholic family – so far so predictable. But at least the scene does allow Dornan the line, ‘That wee girl can be a practicing Hindu, or a Southern Baptist or a vegetarian anti-Christ. But if she’s kind and she’s fair and you two respect each other she and her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.’ Fine sentiments indeed – but I wonder how many of us would have known what a Southern Baptist was in those days.

From the historian’s perspective context is also sadly lacking. Catholics were on the receiving end of intimidation to a greater extent in Belfast than Protestants – in 1972 the Scarman report estimated that 1.6 percent of all households in Belfast had been forced to move in July, August and September 1969; 1505 of these were Catholic families and 315 Protestant families.

However, this process was far from being a one-sided affair. While Catholics were forced out of the new housing estate of Rathcoole, for example, Protestants were evicted from Ardoyne or felt it was unsafe to remain there. Elsewhere, in areas where Protestants were in a minority, it was often a different story. On the city side of Derry a process was beginning whereby the number of Protestants would fall by 95% (Protestant civilian William King was kicked to death by a gang from the Bogside in Derry city centre on 25 September) and the later ‘greening of the west’ would see wide scale intimidation and the murder of many Protestants in border areas.

The performances of the actors are generally fair to good with young Jude Hill as Buddy avoiding most of the pitfalls of child actors and Ciaran Hinds excellent as the grand-father (a role that bears interesting comparison with his patriarch in 1998’s Titanic Town) but Branagh regular Dame Judy Dench has an accent that comes from everywhere and no-where in Belfast and she is perhaps miscast as the grand-mother (Brid Brennan, a Billy plays veteran, might have been an interesting choice to play the grand-mother though she may have been considered slightly too young for the role). Jamie Dornan (Holywood via Hollywood) and Caitriona Balfe are too glamorous for the roles of Buddy’s parents and this proves another distraction which pulls the viewer out of the film.

While Belfast is by no means a bad film it has been over-praised on its initial release and, although apparently a financial success in the city of Belfast, the popular response to the film appears to be more muted than might have been anticipated. Overall, this is a poor shadow of Graham Reid’s Billy plays (Branagh’s breakthrough role) as a depiction of a Protestant working-class family during the Troubles. Those seeking a ‘friends across the barricades’ Troubles movie might also prefer ‘Mickybo and Me’ (2004).

Over the years Branagh has produced some excellent films (notably his Shakespeare adaptations) but also some clunkers (2020’s Artemis Fowl was almost unwatchable) – in the longer-term Belfast seems likely to sit in the middle of the pack.

Three stars.

In August 1969 Gordon Gillespie lived in Cuba Street on the Newtownards Road, Belfast.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Dr Gordon Gillespie
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Dr Gordon Gillespie is an Irish Studies Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast.

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