Filming the ‘Troubles’: Branagh brings Belfast to the big screen

By Luke Bradley –

Recently, I saw the movie everybody’s talking about: Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. As somebody born two years after the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, I am a part of the generation for whom, thankfully, cinema is the closest they will get to visualizing the ‘Troubles’. Of course, like any piece of historical fiction, Belfast must be taken with a pinch of salt.

For those who have not seen the film, rest assured that this article is ‘spoiler free’. But it is safe to explain that Belfast tells the story of a Protestant family who suddenly have their lives uprooted by the onset of the ‘Troubles’. Indeed, they reside in a neighbourhood that includes Catholics and Protestants; a situation which quickly creates problems for them and their neighbours. The film is in no small part based upon Kenneth Branagh’s own early upbringing. Branagh, who was born in Belfast in 1960, moved with his family to Reading in 1969 so as to escape the ‘Troubles’. A filmmaking veteran with numerous accolades and awards to his name, Branagh has described Belfast as his ‘most personal film’. It’s easy to see why: his depiction of the ‘Troubles’ is clearly influenced by his boyhood experience of the unfolding conflict. The lead character and star of the movie, Buddy, portrayed by Jude Hill, is undoubtedly based upon by Branagh’s younger self – Buddy is a similar age as Branagh was at this point in his life. Through Buddy’s young and innocent eyes Branagh’s audience is presented with a version of the ‘Troubles’ that is, understandably, rather sanitized and more befitting of a family movie than perhaps any person from Northern Ireland would be accustomed to.

The movie has attracted some criticism for this. Simran Hans, a film critic for The Observer, described Belfast as ‘Branagh’s chocolate box vision of his childhood’ and awarded it a paltry two stars out of five.[1] Branagh is certainly guilty of romanticising the city and its past to a degree. I would argue that, at times, he goes overboard with his sanitization and glorification of Northern Ireland’s capital. A prime example of this is the film’s opening scene which showcases a flashy, tourist-friendly version of modern-day Belfast, replete with the obligatory Van Morrison soundtrack. 

But while the movie is undoubtedly sentimental, many viewers have defended its importance in the context of commemorating the ‘Troubles’, or more accurately, of commemorating the people who lived through it. Commenters on Hans’ online-review point out that, just as the ‘Troubles’ linger in the background of the movie, so for many of the people who grew-up during them, the ‘Troubles’ has likewise lingered in the background of their ordinary lives.

It is perhaps also worth highlighting that Belfast is not the only recent project to explore this idea: Lisa McGee’s hugely popular sitcom, Derry Girls, has likewise foregrounded youthful innocence and ordinary life amidst the backdrop of a traumatic time period. What Belfast and Derry Girls have in common is that they both explore the lives of ordinary people living in close proximity to, but nevertheless on the fringes of the conflict. As Ian McBride has rightly pointed out, the majority of people in Northern Ireland ‘were not radicalized and…responded to the experience of violence by resolving not to ‘get involved’’.[2] With the success of Derry Girls and Belfast in mind, it is also worth highlighting that the ‘Troubles’ are a particularly hot topic at the moment. This has perhaps been triggered by Brexit and the intrusion of Northern Ireland back onto the centre stage of British, and, for that matter, European politics. But the international success of Belfast and Derry Girls prompts a further observation: that depictions of troubled Irish childhoods are in fashion once again, albeit in a different way. In the nineties, the bleakness of Irish childhoods had a strong appeal, as exhibited by the success of works like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. But McGee’s and Branagh’s works focus on the innocence and joy of childhood in troubled times.

It is certainly true that people living through the ‘Troubles’ had to continue their ‘ordinary life’ or at least as ordinary as it could be under the circumstances, even if day to day existence was rather less glamorous and theatrical than is depicted in Belfast. If you view photographs of Royal Avenue in central Belfast from the 1970s you will notice that, aside from the metal barricades and queues of women waiting for their bags to be searched, the shoppers are sporting popular fashion trends of the seventies. These images suggest that, despite the turmoil going on around them, women in Belfast during the ‘Troubles’ were just as interested in fashion as their counterparts in Britain and Europe.[3]

If Branagh’s film had focused predominantly upon the violence of the ‘Troubles’, without exploring ordinary life during the period, there would most likely be people who would criticize the film for its omission of characters who continued their ordinary lives amidst the chaos. It would seem there is an expectation that artistic depictions of Northern Ireland will focus on the violence of the ‘Troubles’. But as we all well know, there is much more to the history of Northern Ireland than the ‘Troubles’. Adrian Grant has observed, for instance, how the experience of the working class during and after the ‘Troubles’ has been largely neglected by historians in favour of studies of paramilitarism that incorporate the working-class experience.[4] In a way, Belfast goes against the grain by telling a story of working class families where the ‘Troubles’ are featured but are not the star of the movie.

It may well be that it is impossible to make a film that accurately represents the ‘Troubles’ as a whole: there will always be omissions, especially so with regard to people’s lived experiences. But Belfast is not really about the ‘Troubles’. It is about families, particularly ones who resembled Branagh’s; families who had their lives suddenly shaken to the core by the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland. A film of this kind has an important artistic purpose: a cinematic depiction of the ‘Troubles’ has the ability to provoke reflections on the conflict in wider society. In a strange way, a fictional film that does not represent history or reality can evoke stronger emotions and deeper reflections in an audience than a recorded history of actual events.

The film ends with the short dedication, ‘For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost’. Of the three, Belfast is primarily a story of those who left; a story that mirrors Branagh’s own. The film is indeed overly upbeat at times given the subject matter but it’s worth remembering that the story is based upon Branagh’s own, and so therefore biased, memories of his childhood in Belfast. Many people who left Belfast at Branagh’s age may have similarly nostalgic memories of the time, and for these people I imagine the film resonates deeply. Ultimately, what Belfast does best is not depict the ‘Troubles’, but, rather, capture a time, a place, and a feeling. It is not history, as no cinematic depiction of the past ever is, but a form of remembrance and a source of contemplation.

(Image: Luke Bradley)

Luke Bradley is a graduate student currently studying Public History and Cultural Heritage with the University of Limerick. As part of his master’s degree, he is writing a thesis titled ‘Education, entertainment and authenticity: The depiction of Irish revolution in cinema, 1937-2018’. Luke is also a columnist with the local news publication Wexford Weekly


[1] Simran Hans, “Belfast review – Branagh’s chocolate box vision of his childhood”, The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/jan/22/belfast-review-kenneth-branagh-jamie-dornan-judi-dench-ciaran-hinds-feelgood-memoir (26 Mar. 2022).

[2] Ian McBride, “The Shadow of the Gunman: Irish Historians and the IRA.” Journal of Contemporary History, 46, no. 3 (2011), p. 710.

[3] Rachel Sayers, “Shopping through the Barricades: Buying Clothes during the ‘Troubles”, Writing the Troubles Shopping through the Barricades: Buying Clothes during the ‘Troubles’ – Writing the ‘Troubles’ (wordpress.com) (28 Mar. 2022).

[4] Adrian Grant, “Writing the experience of the urban working class”, Writing the Troubles Writing the experience of the urban working class – Writing the ‘Troubles’ (wordpress.com), (27 Mar. 2022).

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