“The Troubles,” a decades-long conflict between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists in Northern Ireland beginning in the late 1960s, is the focus of Kenneth Branagh’s new film.
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When I visited Belfast as a college student in the spring of 2007, it was the murals that struck me—a vibrant collage of politically charged images lining a wall topped by barbed wire. There were panels about George W. Bush, Palestine, and “Segregation for Irish POWs” in Maghaberry Prison.
This unsettled epicenter of “The Troubles,” a decades-long conflict between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists in Northern Ireland beginning in the late 1960s, is the focus of Kenneth Branagh’s new film Belfast—a world the actor and director knows from the inside out.
Based on Branagh’s own boyhood, the film tells the story of a nine-year-old boy, Buddy, who lives with his Protestant family: his mother “Ma,” father “Pa” (who is often working in England), older brother, and grandparents. Black-and-white cinematography heightens the sense of having stepped into a bygone era, one in which it took a village to raise a child. And in this village anyway, Catholics and Protestants lend each other a hand. “There is no ‘our side’ and ‘their side’ in our street,” Pa remarks at one point. “Well, there didn’t used to be anyway.”
This tight-knit community is turned upside down when a group of Protestant rioters arrives to attack Catholic homes. Almost overnight, a barricade is set up on the end of the street, tensions rise among the residents, and Belfast looks more and more like a war zone. As the family gets pulled in different ways into this disorder, they face a dilemma: Do they cling to the place they call home, or follow Pa to England to start a new life?
Branagh weaves together a beautiful and memorable coming-of-age story amid this turmoil, leaning heavily on the music of Belfast native Van Morrison on the way. Buddy, who is preoccupied with homework, movies, and above all, his crush at school, is forced to make sense a world that seems to be spiraling out of control. He leans on the counsel of his grandparents, but it is the steadfast love of his parents, played by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe, that carries him through. This everyday husband and wife overcome great difficulty through mutual fidelity and support—a rare and lovely sight in movies. And the scene of Pa serenading his wife with “Everlasting Love” at an Irish funeral—as Buddy, the very image of their love, gazes at them with a wide smile—is an unforgettable highlight that is worth the price of admission.
Yet for all its beauty when it comes to family, Belfast shrinks away from a subject that deserved more—namely, faith. Perhaps this is unsurprising for a story in which two warring sides are identified with Christian traditions. But the conflict in Northern Ireland also had very little to do with religion itself; it was instead over political and national identity. The subtle differences between these religious traditions, the deep similarities between them, and the ways in which the violence of both sides was a counter-witness to their common faith in Christ—all of this was rich material that Branagh left on the table.
Religion is principally dealt with in three scenes. First, Buddy asks Ma about Catholicism. “Paddy Cavanaugh told me as long as Catholics keep confessing everything bad they’ve done to a priest, then they can do whatever they want and God will forgive them all the time.” Ma playfully responds, “I don’t know how it works. They get a lot of water thrown on them, and then they’re okay. I think that’s it.” Later, Pa laments, “It’s all bloody religion. That’s the problem.” Why, then, does he send them to church? “Because your granny would kill me if I didn’t.”
After Pa dubs Catholicism a “religion of fear,” we cut to a sweaty Protestant preacher delivering his own dose of fear: a fire-and-brimstone sermon about two roads diverging, one to perdition and one to salvation (promptly followed by a collection of money). We see the sermon affect Buddy deeply, but mostly because it confuses him. This was apparently based on a personal memory of Branagh’s. On the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he notes that religion was one of the ways he first sought refuge: “No good for me, I’m afraid. That didn’t work. They literally put the fear of God in me, and suddenly told me there were two roads that I would find when I left this world. And I could never remember which bloody roads they were. . . . I got so obsessed with it that that sort of paralyzed me.”
Finally, toward the end of the film, Buddy confesses his crush on a Catholic girl to Pa, who offers what is really the big takeaway of Belfast: “That wee girl can be a practicing Hindu or a Southern Baptist or a vegetarian antichrist, 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.” This, too, was autobiographical. In an interview with the New York Times, Branagh says, “Although there was this fascination with what the Catholic religion did—this business of confessions seemed handy—my father was always clear with me that if people are honest, decent and true, then it didn’t matter where they came from or what they were and what they did. As rosy-tinted as that seems, that’s how I feel.”
Belfast doesn’t get much further than a boyish shrug at religion: it sees it as basically about fearmongering, moneymaking, convenient rituals, and conflict with other religions. The depth and mystery of it all, and its significance for so many in Ireland from St. Patrick to C.S. Lewis (himself born and raised in Belfast), is completely bypassed. Instead, we’re led to that common modern platitude: all that really matters is being a good person. A message of kindness is all well and good, particularly given the film’s theme, but the downplaying of belief renders it self-defeating. As Fulton Sheen once wrote, “It has been said it makes no difference what you believe; it all depends on how you act. This is psychological nonsense, for a man acts out of his beliefs.” Bishop Barron has convincingly made the same point, arguing that if you want to be a good person, it matters what you believe. The moral vision of the film is thus found wanting; it lacks the depth of the things of the spirit.
Belfast was undeniably good. But if it had dealt with religion with greater seriousness, it could have been one of the greats.