Thanksgiving is upon us, and you might think that a film about the Irish “Troubles” is not the sort of entertainment that could bring families together. But it is. The “Troubles” are just a backdrop to the main story about the life of an ordinary nine-year-old boy and his family.
It’s August 1969 in a working-class neighborhood in Belfast: a boy called Buddy gleefully darts through the streets, and the people he passes call out to him with a greeting or a funny remark or a bit of advice. Minutes later mob violence breaks out. Molotov cocktails explode; windows shatter. His Ma finds him and pulls him inside their small house and sticks him under a table while she goes in search of his older brother.
Buddy’s Pa works construction in England, but he rushes back home to check on his family. By then, British troops have arrived and set up blockades to screen people entering their neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood where Protestants and Catholics have lived amicably side-by-side for as long as anyone can remember. Not anymore. Buddy can’t seem to make sense of it. His Pa thinks it’s time for the family to leave Ireland, for somewhere they can all live together—safely. His Ma considers this place home. It’s where they’ve lived all their lives and where they know everyone and everyone knows them.
But life goes on. Seen mostly through Buddy’s eyes, it’s still a time of wonder. His Pa always looks like a returning hero. His Ma always looks a bit glamorous. He has a crush on a pretty classmate, and he schemes for ways to improve his grades so he can sit next to her at the front of the class. He plays ball with his cousins. One of his favorite outings is to the movies, and Pa indulges the family when he returns on weekend visits every couple of weeks. The family includes Buddy’s grandparents (played by Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), who live nearby and are a big part of their lives. His grandfather dispenses unconventional wisdom and his grandmother is quick with a wisecrack, but theirs is a relationship with deep layers. The grandfather has been having lung issues—a worry he makes light of—but might it have something to do with his previous work as a coal miner?
To stay or go? It’s a heart-breaking decision. Buddy’s family is Protestant, the group with the political power in Northern Ireland, but they’re just as poor as their Catholic neighbors. Buddy’s Pa wants no part of the “Troubles” but a neighborhood thug—another Protestant—is pressuring him to fight back against the Catholics—either with violence or by contributing money to the cause.
This film seems all the more special because it’s a semi-autobiographical glimpse of Kenneth Branagh’s early boyhood. Sir Kenneth (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2012) rose to fame at a young age, when he starred as Henry V on the London stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was later the basis for a major film. He’s well known for his film adaptations of Shakespearean plays, but he’s also made films like Frankenstein (he played the mad scientist; Robert de Niro starred as the monster), Cinderella (starring Lily James), and Murder on the Orient Express (he played Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot). His more recent performances were in the films Dunkirk and last year’s Tenet. He also starred in the Swedish crime series Wallander that ran from 2008-16. And the list goes on. This actor-writer-producer has won many awards, and in 2015, he became president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he once trained as a student.
Earlier this month he told The Washington Post that he has never understood himself as plainly as he did while growing up in Northern Ireland. His relationship to the world was “completely clear and effortless.” It wasn’t until the start of the covid Pandemic that he sat down to write about his early life—or the very first time his world was turned upside down. “Part of the Belfast condition would be that you never show off. . . You do not think you’re better than anyone else.” He said he couldn’t tell his story until he felt it would be relatable to a wide audience and not just “some navel-gazing of my own.”
The film Belfast never delves into the reasons behind “the Troubles.” The violence lasted for thirty years, until 1998 when “The Good Friday Agreement” was signed. The reasons are many and date back to King Henry VIII, a devout Catholic until he wanted a divorce from his first wife. Today southern Ireland is its own country whereas Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom—by choice. Politics. The Troubles are everywhere these days, here and in countries around the globe. What can your average family do to survive them?
“The cinema, for me, was one place where the screen engulfed you so totally that you could, for those moments, forget. You could feel safe, away from the Mayhem.” Kenneth Branagh speaking to Vanity Fair, November 2021.