‘Belfast’ Review: Roadway as Passage and Crisis

I approached the movie Belfast reluctantly, because I feared it would be political, and I didn’t trust Kenneth Branagh to be political in a way that I would appreciate. As it turned out, however, the film was intended to be scrupulous in its avoidance of overt politics, holding rigorously to its decision that the conflict in the Six Counties would be approached solely from the standpoint of its 9-year old main character, that is, more as an ominous background and source of urgency and tension than as a field of partisan engagement or social antagonism. (Indeed, the film intentionally blurs the line, in multiple ways, between children watching Hollywood Westerns like ‘High Noon’ and the same children watching as spectators to the spiralling tensions of the Troubles.)

Belfast, as it turns out, is about love, rather than politics, and Belfast figures as a place where people love others, rather than as a site of political conflict.

The plot is very low-key, and mostly recedes into a supporting role to prop up a symbolic structure that the film places in the foreground: the symbolism of the roadway. Roads appear in two guises, in ‘Belfast’: on the one hand, they are zones of coming and going, where people are either welcome to come and go freely or frozen out (or locked in) by actual or imaginary barricades; on the other hand, roads in the mode of ‘forks’ are also crisis points where “you have to choose,” a constant refrain in the dialogue (not just in political usages but very generally). 

These two variants of the roadway — the passage of coming and going and the fork of taking sides — are ultimately brought together in the film by means of a conception of love that the movie tries to establish, not as the only kind of love but as a kind of love worth choosing: love as embrace of the other’s free coming and going. Love in this mode is not necessarily meant to be understood in contrast to hate, but more so in contrast to a kind of hardness or rigidity that closes the passageway in and out, either clinging to people so that they can’t leave or blocking them so that they can’t return. 

So, it isn’t that Belfast proposes that love is always or only allowing the other to come and go freely, welcomed when they come, and wished a fond farewell when they go. Rather, it proposes that we are forced, at least in times of personal, familial or social crisis, to choose between two ways to construe loving the other: the hard or rigid way, which clings and bonds, or the soft and permeable way, which declines to hold the other tightly, but invites passages back and forth, in and out, accepting of both intimacy and distance.

It would be going too far to say that the movie is ‘apolitical.’ There’s a politics to it, for sure, this child’s view of exile and return or coming and going, but ultimately none of the key characters actually do make any clear political choices. The film ends without any of the political background being sorted out at all. Instead, the characters just choose how they want to love each other, when they are dying, emigrating, or simply changing or maturing. So, it would be more of a stretch to interpret it as a political film in any notable way. It’s political only in the modest sense that ‘everything is political’; it’s not political in the Ken Loach sense, that’s for sure.

Since I’m commenting on the symbolism in Belfast, I’ll just add that, alongside the roadway symbolism, there are a number of associated symbols for permeability or its blockage: doorways (usually open, but with notable exceptions), fences (usually with holes that allow children to pass through), and the bus at the end of the street, just outside the barricade, that leads people to and from the family. But there’s also the phenomenon of the street party, a symbol of stretching the home or the family beyond its bonds or boundaries of privacy or exclusivity. These symbols don’t really depart substantively from the core symbol of the roadway, but they lend a certain richness to image of the roadway as passage and crisis. 

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