“Ya’ been warned!” the angry, red-faced man screamed after he and his mob terroized Buddy’s pleasant little row house neighborhood with rocks and homemade firebombs. Minutes before, Buddy had been playing in the street with kids from down the lane. But now he and his brother and mother were left hiding under their kitchen table: unscathed, but definitely shaken.
Buddy wasn’t sure what the man was even screaming about. It had something to do with a demand that the Catholic families on the street move away. But they were good Irish friends from good Irish families, just like Buddy’s own. Why should anyone hate them so?
It made no sense to Buddy.
Later, he asked his father about the ruckus and about their family being Protestant and some neighbors being Catholic. Buddy wanted to know which side was right. His father just got a sad look in his eye and said that all the nonesense would stop soon. “There’s no our side on our street, “ Pa said firmly.
And the neighborhood’s actions seem to say as much, too. One and all they came together and built baracades with the burned-out car left behind and paving stones and barrels—all in an effort to protect all their homes and keep the mobs out.
Ma made it clear that this place was their home. “You were raised here, and you’re protected here,” she said. Just like she and Pa were. “None of us is goin’ anywhere.” And she shared the same idea as Buddy’s father, suggesting (or perhaps simply hoping) that it would all end soon.
But Buddy could see that it wasn’t gonna stop soon, like his parents said. Not only that, but his father was gone for longer and longer stretches as he traveled farther and farther away for good pay. And that was troubling.
The longer the violent fussing went on, the more Buddy began to fear that things would surely break before they got around to bein’ better. And that would be a terrible thing for everyone.
For all of the outside pressure and the things that tug and pull at Buddy’s parents and grandparents, one thing that remains true is their bond together as a family. From a certain perspective, for instance, it might have seemed easier for Buddy’s father to just leave for a place of solid work. But he and Ma refuse to let that happen. The family holds, even if it means sacrifice.
Family members also articulates the conviction that the raging conflict in the streets isn’t their conflict. Their community is battered by it, but the people stand by one another despite threats. When Buddy develops a crush on a local Catholic girl and worries that they won’t be able to talk to each other, for instance, Pa reassures him, “She and her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.”
The film also suggests that the entertainment the family shares together not only helps them draw closer, but in a palpable way helps them feel encouraged about life changing for the better. Belfast is filmed in black and white, but the cinemas and plays that Buddy’s family go to see all sparkle in color.
Buddy’s grandparents, Granny and Pops, regularly squabble with one another in lighthearted ways, but they always end up lovingly displaying how much they care for one another, from gentle embraces to light kisses.
Pops sings to his wife, “The way to handle a woman is to love her.” And he talks about his heart “dancing a jig” every time she enters the room.
Buddy’s dad thanks his wife for all she’s done to care for the family in his absence. “You raised ’em. Not me, not us. You. Thank you,” he tells her. Elsewhere, Buddy steals something. When his mother finds out, she marches him right back to the store where it came from.
Even though the conflict in the streets is social, political and religious, Buddy’s father tells his son that it’s all due to the angry church voices. We then see a Protestant pastor yelling and preaching to a church full of people about the two very different roads that they can take, “One will take you to the horrors of hell, the other to the redemption of heaven.” But afterward a confused Buddy asks his brother, “What road do we take?”
Granny tends to blend her religion with other superstitions. She makes mention of the dark side of the moon being the place where “Lucifer hangs his shillelagh.”
The community gathers for the funeral of a loved one and the pastor reads from 1 Corinthians 13, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Female characters in a prehistoric movie that the family watches wear bikini-like outfits. Buddy’s young mom tends to wear formfitting stretch tops.
In several scenes, we see crowds of angry people throwing rocks and homemade firebombs and beating up Catholic families. (Some people are lightly bloodied.) Large objects are smashed through glass windows. A lit torch is thrown into one home’s front window. We also see people looting businesses in town. One of the mob thugs, Billy, repeatedly threatens Pa, telling him that he needs to cough up money for the cause or join in. Pa refuses and threatens to kill anyone who hurts his family.
Later, Billy grabs Buddy and his mom, holding Ma at gunpoint. And Pa throws a brick, knocks the gun out of Billy’s hand and rescues his loved ones. In a different scene, Billy walks up to a man in Buddy’s neighborhood and punches him in the face, demanding that he move out of town. We also find out that Buddy’s older brother has been running “deliveries” for the Protestant gang.
Buddy’s older cousin, Vanessa, convinces him to join her in a gang to make his life better. At first that means helping her steal chocolate bars. Then, to his shock, the “gang” turns out to be the Protestant mob that ends up destroying property and smashing a store window. Locals rush in to steal foodstuffs and the authorities roar in, leaving Buddy standing defenseless in the middle. When Ma finds out she grabs Vanessa and threatens to beat her black and blue if she ever pulls Buddy into anything like that again.
Someone grows sick and dies from cancer.
Two f-words (and one or two uses of the Irish equivalent “focker”) and a single use of the s-word variant “shite” are joined by a couple uses each of “arse” and “h—.” The British crudity “bloody” is spit out nearly 10 times. And God’s name is misused twice.
We see community members drinking in a pub, while sitting around the neighborhood and at a wake. Some drink quite heavily at times and get a bit drunk. In that light, one person suggests that the Irish were meant to emigrate to other countries and lands, “Otherwise there’d be no pubs.”
Buddy’s family struggles with a large tax debt because of his father’s gambling problem. Buddy’s father always calls out, “Be good son. And if you can’t be good … be careful.” Pops tells Buddy to make his math equations sloppier in the hopes that the teacher will give him the benefit of the doubt over penciled equations she can’t read.
When you find yourself watching a film that harkens back to the enflamed conflicts of late ’60s in Northern Ireland, you start steeling yourself for some potentially brutal moments. And the opening scene here, featuring an angry mob in a peaceful row house neighborhood, definitely sets that stage: We see mothers running to grab crying children, people deflecting thrown rocks with trash can lids, cars exploding. I was certainly expecting a potentially difficult movie ride from there.
However, director Kenneth Branagh’s coming of age tale isn’t really that kind of film. There’s some harsh language, violence and heated conflicts, to be sure—the kind of content that will keep younger viewers away. But Belfast has a way of surprising with its almost unexpected beauty.
It’s an engaging, and at times tender movie about belonging to an Irish family and community. It talks of carrying on when things seem impossible—still loving, still protecting. And it speaks with an impassioned fervor about acceptance and endurance.
Sure, this well-made, semi-biographical film captures important moments from writer/director Branagh’s past. But for thoughtful adult viewers, it also offers some important things to mull over in the present, too.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.