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BBC: Belfast: The troubled city filmmakers love


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https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20211105-belfast-the-troubled-city-filmmakers-love

Belfast: The troubled city filmmakers love
(Image credit: Rob Youngson/ Focus Features)
 

Belfast still

By Beverley D'Silva7th November 2021
 
As Kenneth Branagh's film Belfast opens, Beverley D'Silva explores how cinema has captured the unique essence of Northern Ireland's capital – in all its light and shade.
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Northern Ireland – and its capital Belfast – has long provided filmmakers with rich material. Shining a light on the region's political history are many powerful films about the Troubles – the sectarian conflict between mostly Protestant unionists (loyalists) who wished to remain part of the UK, and mostly Roman Catholic nationalists (republicans) who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland.

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Each decade of the Troubles has produced its own take on the conflict. In the 1970s, documentaries like Philip Clayton-Thompson's A Place Called Ardoyne captured the voices of working-class Catholics. Thrillers of various kinds dominated the '80s and '90s, while 1998's Titanic Town starred Julie Walters as a peace campaigner. In Steve McQueen's Hunger (2008), Michael Fassbender played hunger striker Bobby Sands.

 
 

Kenneth Branagh's Belfast tells the story of Buddy, a boy coming of age in the turbulent 1960s (Credit: Rob Youngson/ Focus Features)

Kenneth Branagh's Belfast tells the story of Buddy, a boy coming of age in the turbulent 1960s (Credit: Rob Youngson/ Focus Features)

New on the list of compelling Troubles movies is Belfast, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Set in 1969, it focuses on a working-class family in north Belfast, who are fighting to survive and stay on the right side of the law, amid the tumult of the conflict. As the street violence and sense of personal danger escalate, the family struggles with the heart-rending question: to stay with the place and people they love despite the risks, or to seek safety in England? 

Amid the dangers, the film Belfast shows the wonderfully close spirit of the community: the fierce loyalty of loved ones

Branagh has said Belfast is his "most personal story yet", and he's weaved intimate details into every frame. Like the film's boy narrator, Buddy (played with wide-eyed wonder by newcomer Jude Hill), Branagh grew up in the city in a Protestant family, where crowds marched and the army fought to assert control. Like Buddy in the film, as a boy, Branagh burst into tears when he was told his family might leave Belfast to escape the Troubles for greater security and safety (his family moved to Reading when he was nine).

"That turnaround in my childhood was very vivid – [there was] this violent unfolding," he told The Sunday Times. "What it imbued in me is a sense that life can be very fragile, even at the most secure and happy moments… this sense that the world could spin out of control very quickly." 

 

Belfast is the director's most personal film – and has been tipped as an Oscar contender (Credit: Rob Youngson/ Focus Features)

Belfast is the director's most personal film – and has been tipped as an Oscar contender (Credit: Rob Youngson/ Focus Features)

Branagh's vivid sense of growing up on a knife-edge came to light when I interviewed him in the 1990s, when he was making Hamlet; he said he'd always had a sense of impending danger in his life "as if a bomb could go off in my face at any moment". In the context of this film, the reason for that is now very clear.

But amid the dangers, the film shows the wonderfully close spirit of the community: the fierce loyalty of loved ones; the comedy of the grown-ups sitting around the outside lavatory for a private chat; the joy of a family outing to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years BC at the local cinema.    

Jamie Dornan, who plays Buddy's father, was born and bred in Belfast, while Dublin-born Caitriona Balfe plays his mother. Buddy's grandparents are played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching. A searing soundtrack of original songs by Belfast-born Van Morrison is the perfect backdrop.

Having scooped the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Belfast is seen as an Oscar frontrunner. Critics have loved it – The Guardian pointed to the film's "streak of normality and even banality, which assumes its own surreal tone. Love letters to the past are always addressed to an illusion, yet this is such a seductive piece of myth-making from Branagh". Talking at the festival, Branagh revealed the film was born out of lockdown, when down time and uncertainty brought up deep emotions for him around his boyhood amid the Troubles – "the trauma that made me" as he has put it – that finally had to be told.

 

In Steve McQueen's Hunger Michael Fassbender plays hunger striker Bobby Sands (Credit: Alamy)

In Steve McQueen's Hunger Michael Fassbender plays hunger striker Bobby Sands (Credit: Alamy)

Branagh, arguably one of our most quintessentially English-seeming thespians, is used to people's surprise to discover he's from Belfast at all:  "They have me down as Johnny Posh Boy, who wears tights and carries a tome of Shakespeare under my arm," he told The Sunday Times.

A special atmosphere

Brian Henry Martin (also known as BHM), a film critic and filmmaker, grew up in Belfast, which he calls "a troubled city". He recalls cinemas being targeted, bombed and destroyed: "Cinema venues dropped from 23 to five 10 years into the conflict," he tells BBC Culture. As a consequence, films about the Troubles were frequently filmed elsewhere, often in Dublin or Liverpool, which for those who knew Belfast intimately was easy to spot because "Belfast is very distinctive. It's an industrial port city, and Victorian, and has a unique look to it." Standout landmark sites are the city's vast harbour, the heart of its historic shipbuilding industry, including the Titanic Quarter; and the imposing Belfast Hills – Black Mountain, Divis and Cavehill – that tower over the city like sleeping giants, and are said to have inspired Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver's Travels.

Some Belfast-set films made elsewhere did capture its special atmosphere, he feels, such as the classic British crime drama Odd Man Out, directed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason as a former nationalist leader, wounded after a bank heist with the life ebbing from him.

"Its opening titles say it's 'set in a Northern Irish city'. It doesn't name Belfast but that's what it's about. The accents are all over the place; James Mason is speaking in some kind of strange Irish." But despite this, and despite being shot in a studio in London (with some exterior photography in Belfast) he says, "there is something authentically Belfast about it… a mood to that film which feels right".

 

Comedy drama Good Vibrations (2012) is set in the 1970s and tells the story of Belfast's punk scene (Credit: Alamy)

Comedy drama Good Vibrations (2012) is set in the 1970s and tells the story of Belfast's punk scene (Credit: Alamy)

In subsequent decades, a number of Hollywood thrillers were set in Northern Ireland. A Prayer for the Dying (1987) tells the story of a former IRA member (played by Mickey Rourke) trying to escape his past. The Jackal was a 1997 action thriller starring Richard Gere as a former IRA sniper. As Martin puts it, these movies featured "these beautiful-looking movie stars who were talking like us, in our strange accents… but most of the time they were playing killers or psychotic characters. Around then, if you heard a Belfast accent it was something sinister –  so that wasn't so flattering".

One Hollywood blockbuster not about the Troubles that omitted any mention of Belfast's importance is Titanic. "It was the biggest movie in the world when it was released [1990]. The original ship – one of the most famous in history – was built in Belfast, yet there's no mention of that in the script at all."

Authenticity of location and accents became a driving force for directors such as Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, seen as steering a renaissance of Irish cinema from the 1990s. Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) starred Stephen Rea as an IRA man. Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993), about the Guildford Four – who were falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings – was "a really important film," says Martin. "As father and son, Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite's accents were spot-on." While Steve McQueen's Hunger "made a huge impact here, and liberated us to be more creative about our own stories".

 

The 1956 comedy Jacqueline presents Belfast in an optimistic light (Credit: Alamy)

The 1956 comedy Jacqueline presents Belfast in an optimistic light (Credit: Alamy)

Dr Ciara Chambers, a Belfast-born film historian and author of Ireland in the Newsreels, identifies several trends when putting Belfast on screen. "We often see the city as the site of political conflict, for example in Ken Loach's political thriller Hidden Agenda [1990]; and the gory drama Resurrection Man [Marc Evans, 1998]," Dr Chambers tells BBC Culture. But she's keen to flag up films that are "lighter and more optimistic" such as the comedy Jacqueline (1956), which was shot in Belfast, and opens with images of the shipyard. "It follows the story of a young girl who tries to keep her roguish but charming father away from alcohol – no Irish stereotypes there!"

Another feel-good Belfast film was Good Vibrations (2012) about Terri Hooley, founder of a record shop and label that kickstarted the success of many punk bands in Belfast, including The Undertones. Brian Henry Martin agrees: "It felt like it was born from this place. It was filmed here, and Hooley was a Belfast legend. That film really captured that spirit like no other film has ever done."

There's a sense of optimism around creativity in the city – and a sense of moving forward into a new era of exciting storytelling by new voices and fresh talent

Dr Chambers also points to "peace process films", such as Michael Winterbottom's With or Without You (1999), "which shows us a Belfast of bright spaces, art galleries and coffee shops". Declan Lowney's comedy Wild About Harry (2000) and Paul Kennedy's Made in Belfast (2013) also fall into this category of a "brighter version of Belfast", as Chambers puts it.

She is also acutely aware of how many Belfast-set films were not shot in the city, but in Dublin, including Nothing Personal (1995) – set just after the 1975 ceasefire, a "raw depiction ofBelfast as a place of savage tribal warfare", and The Boxer, a 1997 Jim Sheridan film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Danny, a former IRA member fresh out of prison and trying to start a new life in Belfast. 

"Resurrection Manwas shot in Manchester, Liverpool and Warrington," says Chambers.  "Even though scenes refer directly to streets in the Holylands [a residential area of inner-south Belfast]."

 

The 1981 film Maeve presents a view of the Troubles from a young woman's perspective (Credit: BFI)

The 1981 film Maeve presents a view of the Troubles from a young woman's perspective (Credit: BFI)

According to Chambers, films that strikingly capture the essence of the city include Mike Leigh's Four Days in July (1984), and Pat Murphy's film Maeve, which "explores how women navigate the traditionally male spaces of the conflict, and is as relevant today as when it was made in 1981".

While both film pundits continue to highlight Belfast's rich cinematic history, they gladly acknowledge that fortunes are rising fast for Northern Ireland's film industry today. "Belfast was once described as living on top of an active volcano," says Martin. "It can be a volatile place – but it's also changing. It has a vibrant new youthful and diverse population that is transforming not just the city but the stories we tell."

Much of that opportunity and focus is centred on Belfast. Belfast Harbour Studios, an eight-acre site located within the 340-acre Giants Park, opened in 2017, and has attracted world-class productions – including Netflix's first major production in Belfast, The School of Good and Evil (starring Charlize Theron, and based on the young-adult fantasy novels by Soman Chainani), which began filming in April of this year.    

 

In Branagh's Belfast, there are moments of joy and fun – such as a family visit to the cinema (Credit: Rob Youngson/ Focus Features)

In Branagh's Belfast, there are moments of joy and fun – such as a family visit to the cinema (Credit: Rob Youngson/ Focus Features)

The vast Titanic Studios in the city's Titanic quarter has been putting the city on the cinematic map for almost a decade, and this year hosted leading productions such as Dungeons and Dragons (starring Hugh Grant and Bridgerton duke Regé-Jean Page). And who could forget Game of Thrones? One of the most successful TV series of all time, it was filmed in Belfast and across Northern Ireland, making great use of the region's rugged coastlines, historic castles and breathtaking scenery. For millions of fans, Northern Ireland and Belfast will forever be "Game of Thrones territory".

In fact, there's a sense of optimism around creativity in the city – and a sense of moving forward into a new era of exciting storytelling by new voices and fresh talent. Films that have no reference to past conflicts include Nowhere Special, a 2020 drama, inspired by a true story, and starring James Norton as a single father given months to live who searches for a family to care for his son. And the highly rated debut feature by Stacey Gregg, Here Before, a bold psychological thriller starring Andrea Riseborough. Then there is Derry Girls, which has the Troubles as a backdrop but is a riotous, irreverent and joyful comedy set in the mid 90s, and based on writer Lisa McGee's schooldays. Shot in Belfast as well as the titular city, it is Channel 4's most successful sit-com since Father Ted.

"Derry Girls shows off our wicked sense of humour which can get lost in dark dramas," says Martin. "It's also a timely reminder of how precious the peace process is, and how we should never forget this." That peace process, he believes, is "built on firm foundations – and one of those is the film industry, which has created jobs and given us all hope". He adds: "Not all stories of the Troubles have been told, we must continue to explore, to tell our truths and let ourselves heal on the big screen. That's part of the process and the journey we're on."

Martin believes Branagh's film has captured the heart and humanity of the city, and an incredible energy, past and present. "I think it's incredibly emotional and significant he's told the story of his own childhood, and the moment when he leaves the city – because that story has not been told. He made the film for his hometown. And if he wins an Oscar, you can be sure the whole city will be toasting him and celebrating."

Belfast is released on 12 November in the US, and 25 February in the UK.

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