I was too young to understand the explosion of civil violence in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s but not so young that it didn’t soon register. But it didn’t seem relevant to my little life in rural Hampshire, any more than images from the Nigerian civil war or the Middle Eastern conflicts. It was to all intents and purposes a foreign country.
Is that how children today view Ukraine or is it better explained? I hope the latter.
It’s this realisation that makes the opening sequences of the film, Belfast such a jolt. Branagh uses a neat directorial trick at the start by showing us, in glorious UHD technicolour modern Belfast with its many cultural wonders. The camera swoops around iconic structures and art installations, eventually ending in a residential street where the colour quickly bleaches out, the cars disappear and children and adults, dressed for the late sixties and playing the games that were ubiquitous back then emerge.
It’s a neat shock, a clever device that lets us know that whatever we are going to see, it’s not like that anymore, however much some gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells would like it to return. The bigger shock for me is in the familiarity of that street. I never lived in a inner city as a child but I knew of those grey terraces, of the tarmac based games, dodging adult legs and accusations. It could be Average Town Anywhere. It wasn’t far removed from the daily experiences of so many.
And yet it was, or it was to be in short order. Soon enough simmering tensions between communities spilt over and the world tilted on its axis. Civilisation is but a thin veneer: was that ever more true than in those early days of the Troubles.
The film is seen through the eyes of a young lad, cheeky, resilient, home loving and adaptable yet confused by all the bursts of mayhem that swirled about him and then returning to the mean of a scabby-kneed pre teen. It’s based on Branagh’s own childhood and can’t help but stop me to think ‘that could have been me’. Sliding doors.
I’ve lived through riots in the early 80s and 2011. I’ve wondered how far the civil disturbances would go and the answer has been: not far. But let’s never forget the Troubles, whatever their historic context. Ask Kviv residents if they can actually believe it could happen there and yet it is.
Belfast is an enjoyable story, a fantastic performance by the young lead and uplifting, funny and heart warming at times. But it is also, at least to this old git, a reminder that our cracked, wobbly, one legged system of society is hopeless, irredeemably flawed and utterly and continually frustrating and yet… it’s a fuck sight better than any of the alternatives and on that I will give ground to no one.
Indeed when I think about it, I’d hate it to work too well; if it did we’d get more than complacent and then we really are stuffed