Ella Buckley interrogates the romanticism and nostalgia permeating Kenneth Branagh’s coming of age tale set in Troubles-stricken Northern Ireland.
For a young child growing up in Northern Ireland during the late 60s and early 70s, the conflict happening on your front doorstep was, apparently, not the most important thing to you. Reruns of Star Trek on the TV, school projects about the Moon landing and childhood crushes on wee Catholic girls mattered more.
Rather than rose, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021) attempts to look back on the director’s childhood – spent surrounded by the long conflict of the Troubles – with monochrome-tinted glasses and suggest that the division between Catholics and Protestants in the country is not as black and white as it is grey; that there is unity to be found between the two religions and the countries they fight for.
But the film’s avoidance of talking about the conflict that has devastated Northern Ireland, as shown through Ma (Caitriona Balfe) – Branagh’s self-inserted Buddy’s (Jude Hill) mother – switching off news reports on the TV, seems reductive and uncritical when Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland still, to this day, bear the scars the Troubles caused. Branagh’s effort does, ultimately, succumb to nostalgia.
Though Belfast is a sweet, enjoyable watch, it is ultimately a romanticised depiction of civil unrest
Admittedly, the film has some incredibly heartfelt moments, but these are usually solely centred around Buddy’s family itself, particularly his loving father (Jamie Dornan) and bickering grandparents (Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). Taken alongside the film’s upbeat Van Morrison-infused soundtrack and regular child’s-eye view, it’s this gooey, familial focus that consistently makes the setting’s backdrop of violent rioting, car-bombings and countless military checkpoints seem merely a distant memory.
Moreover, although Belfast now is a beautiful city as seen in the proud, opening display of the city’s vibrant culture and architecture – with the immediately identifiable golden arches of the Harland and Wolff shipyard and standout Titanic Museum – the majority of the ‘peace walls’ dividing Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods were erected after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had been signed.
Though Belfast is a sweet, enjoyable watch, it is ultimately a romanticised depiction of civil unrest and brushes over a dark history that is still clearly felt in the country today. Here, Branagh has produced a palatable but therefore somewhat tone-deaf account of the Northern Irish Troubles for a wide audience… and likely also for the Academy this upcoming awards season.