On watching ‘Belfast’

The cinema experience now seems a luxury.  What a joy to smell popcorn, scramble to a seat in semi-darkness, sit through endless adverts for unneeded stuff, wonder which of the trailed films would be worth going to see, and finally getting to the certificate that opens the film I’m there for. 

Belfast turned out to be provocative, delightful and a memory jogger.  I’d read Kenneth Branagh’s letter to his younger self in Big Issue in which he talks about the film which sparked my interest in going to see it.  He says: ‘The history of Ireland is so charged with the awareness of anniversaries and history. You live in an almost permanent sense of the weight your forebears have brought to the situations and events that brought us to this point. Belfast is about reclaiming the macro part, the human and humane part, that was not indifferent to or ignorant of larger political issues but part of a mosaic of stories to build a cumulative understanding. In this case, one family, one child, one street, one experience in the north of Belfast.’

It’s provocative:  I don’t know the history behind ‘The Troubles’, and I’ve been provoked into learning something of it, starting with the BBC series Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History.

I’m fortunate – I haven’t directly experienced war or partisan conflict.  I’ve read about it and have met many people who have been caught up in conflict in their homeland – from Eritrea, Crimea, Bosnia, Iran, among others – and have come to the UK.

But maybe because I haven’t experience war myself, I have an inherent, largely unexamined, bias that all war is wrong – that it is a colossal waste of people, money, resources and brain-power that would be better spent elsewhere. (See Defence Technology, 29 January 2022, a special Economist report).  I think I would have been a conscientious objector in the second world war.  I’m attracted to non-violent communication, pacifism, war tax resistance and alternatives to war. I don’t like violence in any form.

Now, I’ve been provoked into examining that bias.  I’m asking myself whether there are situations when war or violent conflict is justifiable?  My immediate reaction is ‘no’, but I’m pausing that negative in order to stop and consider.  I’m skimming the various courses on war ethics and paradoxes that are available free online e.g. Military Ethics: an introduction  and Paradoxes of War. I wonder if I’ll take any of them and adjust my thinking or continue to cling to my current view?

It’s delightful: in its depiction of family relationships as they ebb and flow, stretch and strain, grow and flourish, under the terrible complexities the Troubles superimpose on day to day living.   There’s a great scene where the boy, Buddy (Jude Hill), is pressured to join a looting mob and snatches up a packet of Omo from a shop, taking it triumphantly home. His furious mother drags him back, running the gauntlet of the looters, to replace it in the now almost destroyed shop. 

The grandparents are funny, concerned and sometimes acerbic, offering down-to-earth, common-sense comment.  The Guardian reviewer notes that ‘The film moves with an easy swing from home to street to schoolroom to pub and back home, and it’s perhaps fullest and richest when nothing specifically tragic or Troubles-related is happening.’   The characters are rich and believable, sparring with each other in the way families whose members get on with each other do.  The Times reviewer comments on ‘such emotional generosity and wit and it tackles a dilemma of the times not often understood: when, and if, to pack up and leave Belfast.’   It’s full of little cameo scenes of warmth and humour amidst the panic and the terror. 

Buddy’s facial expressions, longings, puzzlement, and small boyishness are beautifully depicted as he lives through growing up on a troubled street.  As the New Yorker reviewer reports ‘[Buddy] is aware that he lives on a mixed street, where Protestants (like him and his relatives) have traditionally rubbed along with Catholics. Now, for reasons that he doesn’t fully understand, some people don’t care for the rub. Buddy also sees the barricades that are quickly built to keep communities apart, and the British soldiers who are brought in to keep the peace. But what matters equally, in his mind, is the clever girl in his class, at school, with her long fair hair. She happens to be a Catholic, but so what?’

The skilful casting and the brilliant acting from financially feckless, Ma (Caitríona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), grandparents Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench) are what makes the family relationships both dance and jangle.   

It’s a memory jogger:   My mother was from Dublin, and as children we got stories of her fierce perspectives on Irish history – our lives thrummed with stories of rebellion, repression, resistance, religion, and, for many, ruin or repatriation.  (She left Dublin for the UK in 1943).   She had strong views on the partition of Ireland which took place when she was 5 (1921) and the emotions and politics it came from and gave rise to.  

And it was a memory jogger in other ways too.  The soundtrack of the film was wonderfully evocative of my early teenage years when I played Van Morrison endlessly.  And I’ve been playing his music again this week, reminded by the film. 

Mr Singh’s sweetshop in the film took me back to our own Mr Harrington’s where we used to go after school to buy penny chews and sherbet dips.  His displays were well guarded in glass jars so no temptation to rush in and swipe something – though I don’t think this would have occurred to us to do.  And probably wouldn’t have occurred to Buddy, except he was pressured into it by his cousin.

The reviews I’ve read of the film are mixed, but I came out of the cinema thinking it was time (and money) well-spent. 

Have you seen it?  What’s your view?  Let me know.

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