The story that is told in the Oscar-nominated movie, “Belfast,” is filled with wonder. It was for me any way. Primarily because writer/director Kenneth Branagh masterfully connected me with nine-year-old “Buddy,” a little boy who reminds me of me.
Seriously, what nine-year-old boy didn’t experience his first crush on the smart and pretty girl in class? I remember putting in a little extra effort at school so that I could impress the girls I fancied then, not that it did me any good, with the girls that is.
“Belfast” was a movie I had to see because the city was part of the last great vacation my wife and I took before the pandemic made great trips hard to come by. We stayed there for two days in 2019 and roamed the city without supervision while we were there. I vividly remember the feeling the city gave me–it was as if the spirit of the “Troubles” was still hanging in the air. The onset of the strife that dominated the city from the late 1960s until the late 1990s is the setting of the film, but it is not the story.
The story is about Buddy’s family and the familial dilemma the Troubles caused for them. The adults in the house had to decide whether to stay in the neighborhood and city they loved or leave the chaos the conflict brought so they could live their lives in peace. “Pa” worked in England and came home on the weekends, and moving the family there was definitely Plan B. The Troubles were not a good enough reason for Buddy to leave, because that would mean leaving his crush and his best-friend-grandpa behind.
What troubles did the adults around you cause that got in the way of the important stuff when you were nine? I remember a few.
The movie depicts the events of August 15, 1969 as the beginning of the violent conflict between the Catholic “nationalists” and the Protestant “loyalists” in Northern Ireland. Some declare the start of that 30-year conflict as early as the prior year, but the media coverage of the events that August is when the conflict became commonly referred to as the “Troubles.”
It is a fascinating euphemism–calling the unrest, the rioting, or even the religious civil war that engulfed the country for three decades, the “Troubles.” The term had been used before to describe conflicts in Ireland’s history, and has the distinct advantage in that “it avoided ascribing blame to any of the participants,” as reported in a 2019 50-year anniversary piece by The Irish Times.
In the film, there is a striking exchange between Buddy and his older cousin, Moira, in which the two try to understand how to identify who is Catholic and who is Protestant. Understanding who was who could actually matter under the circumstances. Watching the children try to make rational sense of who was on what side brought the irrationality of it all into clear focus. Of course, there were reasons for the conflict, but the people had more in common than not.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, in southwest Virginia, my family was one of the very few Catholic families in the area. Coupled with our Irish heritage, and my childish understanding of the Troubles, I had an exaggerated view of being different than everyone around me. The truth was, and still is, I wasn’t all that different at all.
I see the irrationally intense differences in our politics today as dangerously similar to Northern Ireland’s at the end of the twentieth century. There are some significant leaps that would need to occur for them to become identical, but the similarities are unmistakable. Specifically, as the movie depicts, families and young adults are now making decisions on where to live with a new intensity connected to the politics of a city, region or state. Technology allows people to make these choices more freely today, and employment will “force” families to live in a place that will likely never feel like home to them less and less.
My parents felt that way about Virginia.
For me, all of the additional thought, reading and contextual discussion that “Belfast” inspires is what makes it a truly great story. Again, the movie isn’t about the conflict, but about the impact conflicts like it have on average people. Sometimes, the most common experiences, shared in the most contextual ways, provide the greatest opportunity for broad understanding.
And hopefully, the film earns the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday night to go with it.