Photo by Amanda Edwards
Artillery Row

Eternally complicit, hell-fired thugs

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast transcends the identity strait jacket

I went to watch the film Belfast in the cinema last night, wanting to love it — and I did. This probably explains why I’m a counter terrorism expert and Mark Kermode can sleep soundly at night. The film offers Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical tale of life in a working-class district of Belfast in the late sixties on the cusp of the murderous sectarian spasm we call the Troubles. I was motivated in part to see it by some particularly crabbit reviews. I also grew up in Northern Ireland, while brutality ran amok in the border killing fields of Fermanagh. Branagh’s film set is the cockpit of the violence that disfigured my formative years. And it stars the peerless Ciaran Hinds — what could be better.

Filmography of the Troubles is dominated by weary Nationalist narratives

The Belfast Branagh depicts is framed by the inter-communal violence that lit the touchpaper for 30 years of near anarchy. The self-conscious choreography of soldiers, rioters and fearful locals is a necessary but insufficient backdrop for Branagh’s tale, seen through the eyes of Buddy, a young Protestant kid trying to make sense of a world where his Catholic neighbours are being burned out around him. Branagh added an often comedic humanity to this extraordinary world, and that is what seems to have stuck in the craw of some reviewers.

The filmography of the Troubles is dominated by wearily familiar Nationalist narratives of oppression and grievance with only occasional, sometimes cartoonish depictions of their Unionist counterparts who have the drama school market for mouth breathing, religiously intoxicated oppressors cornered. It adds to the weight of revisionism being heaped on this dark period, which doesn’t like that orthodoxy being disrupted, even mildly. I don’t claim this as unfair, by the way; it’s up to Unionists to make the case for their stories to be told. It is interesting, though, to see the reaction to a film that celebrates my clan as, if far from perfect, at least three dimensional.

Nick Laird, the Ulster-born other half of Zadie Smith who often writes beautiful poetry, dipped his pen in acid for a Times review. Laird was born in Cookstown, slap bang in the middle of the Province. It’s a place known more for its sausages than gritty urban warfare so perhaps this “complicated” middle class Prod scribbler was overcompensating. Anyway, we are subjected to a rather sneering takedown. Far too much feel-good, far too little feel-guilty is the tone. Working class Belfast is depicted as “fantastical”, he writes, for those who may have been expecting Ken Loach instead of Ken Branagh.

The film’s working-class protagonists are guilty of, amongst other things, quoting Milton and Yeats. Branagh’s temerity extends, we are told, to showing “old married couples flirt and dance around the living room singing love songs to each other”. In Laird’s eyes, this is an affront to realism. I’m not saying that we danced around the bonfire in my loyalist council estate quoting Homer, but what comes across here is a rather dull, liberal, self-absorbed sourness. In this film we aren’t, for once, cast as relentlessly thran (to use an Ulster expression): eternally complicit hell fired thugs. We have everyday joys, hopes, fears and loves that transcend the identity strait jacket.

Laird has a view as black and white as the film he critiques

Laird has another go at pulling us back into our lanes. In his not-fantastical world, it is risible to suggest that Protestants had a complex identity that meant they could be both Irish and Unionists. He should have got out more. Until the provisional IRA started trying to murder us into their perverted republican utopia, this was an understated truth. Laird criticises Belfast for a hubristic lack of reality. Perhaps the mote is in his own eye? We like our discourse biblical in the Wee Six.

Laird was born in 1975, seven years after me, but his experience — growing up and going “across the water” to university in England — is identical. He’s written previously about feeling homesick and having a hand taken out of him for his accent — fears expressed by Buddy’s parents as they struggle with the idea of moving away. Either I suffered none of these slings and arrows, or I was too thick skinned to notice. Perhaps that’s why I could watch the film and simply enjoy it, rather than dwell on these uncomfortable reminders of dislocation.

For someone so adept in the use of nuance, Laird has a view of the place that “reared him for export” as black and white as the film he critiques. He’s written before about the existence of two separate realities, Catholic and Protestant, that only met fitfully in certain bloody ways. That was emphatically not my experience growing up in a mixed community, even under siege from republican terrorism. Belfast tries to capture some of that eternal complexity, not always perfectly, but to Laird’s evident distaste. Where I came from, when the hormones kicked in, as Buddy shows in his lovely infatuation with a catholic girl at his school, a shy smile can break down barriers quicker than an army ferret.

Don’t take my word for it. Or his. Go and see Belfast and judge for yourself. If Jude Hill doesn’t get a gong for his utterly captivating performance as Branagh’s young alter ego, here’s a Troubles warning to the Oscar judges that will be familiar to the pair of us: “we know where youse live”.

Belfast was released in UK cinemas on 21 January, 2022.

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