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I enjoyed director Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021, now on HBO) for many reasons. Just a few of them include a meaningful story set in 1969 Belfast and excellent acting.

The best lines in it comes near the end of the film and from the father (actor Jamie Dornan) of nine-year-old Buddy ( Jude Hill), around whom the film revolves. About to move away from Belfast—partly because of the dad taking a job near London and partly because of the dangerous violence threatening them, partly erupting on their street as Protestants attack Catholics and their homes—Buddy has just visited his little girlfriend. He gave her some flowers and said goodbye. Afterwards he asks his dad, “ Do you think me an’ that wee girl have a future?” Dad replies, “Why the heck not?” Buddy, who is Protestant, answers, “You know she’s a Catholic?” And his dad relates his own viewpoint (and no doubt that of director Branagh): “That wee girl can be a practicing Hindu, or a Southern Baptist or a Vegetarian Anti-Christ. But if she’s kind and she’s fair, and you two respect each other, she an’her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.” (All quotes are from the film script.)

After having seen Protestant mobs attack Catholics and their homes—setting fires, breaking glass, etc.—and hearing radio and television reports describe the scene in August 1969 (“Buildings scarred by fire, thousands of pounds worth of damage caused and of course the tragic loss of life. It's been a night of shame for Belfast, one that will live on in the memories of the people for a very long time”), the little speech of Buddy’s dad is especially welcome. (Those familiar with “The Troubles,” that period of Catholic-Protestant conflict that continued until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, know that the IRA, which claimed to represent Irish Catholic interests, also engaged in killings.)

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I have often written of the senseless violence that emanates from ethnic, religious, or cultural conflicts, whether in Europe, India, Africa, the USA, or some other part of the world. In Chapter 1, “A Century of Violence,” of my An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008), I quoted the Nobel-Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, who wrote that much of it flowed from “the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity,” for example, that of nationality, race, or class. He added that “the art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have.”

But I agree with the sentiments of Frederick Douglass. In a Boston speech a century and a half ago, Douglass insisted that “our greatness and grandeur will be found” in embracing the concept of our being a “composite” nation, made up of many different ethnic and religious groups. In his day, for example, there were great fears regarding Chinese immigrants, and some violence against them, but he thought that they could enrich our nation. “Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.”

The opposite of that spirit, however, has often prevailed. In his The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, historian Niall Ferguson states that one of the three causes of the “extreme violence” of the century was “ethnic conflict,” much of it in Europe. But not exclusively. In one of his novels, Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie captured well the conflicts (often emanating from religious and ethnic differences) that so often troubled the land of his childhood, both internally and with neighboring Pakistan: “In Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, Meerut—in Delhi, in Calcutta—from time to time they slit their neighbor’s throats…They killed you for being circumcised and they killed you because your foreskins had been left on. Long hair got you murdered and haircuts too; light skin flayed dark skin and if you spoke the wrong language you could lose your twisted tongue.”

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In addition to the Catholic-Protestant violent conflicts, Belfast touches on a few other important topics. One is the difficulties of migration, a topic about which I’ve earlier written. When Buddy’s dad suggests to the boy’s mom (Irish actress Caitriona Balfe) that they move out of Belfast to England, she objects:

You an me, we have known each other since we were toddlers. We’ve known this street, and every street round it, all our lives, an every man, woman, an’ chil’ that lives in every bloody house, whether we like it or not. An’ y’ say you’ve a wee garden for them boys [in the new house they'll move to]? But here they can play where the hell they like, cos everybody knows them, everybody likes them, and everybody looks after them. If we go over the water, them people’s not gonna undestan’ a word we say, an’ half o’ them’ll take the hand outta us for soundin’ different. The o’r half, they’ll hate us cos men here are killin their young sons on our streets, an’ they think we couldn’ give a shite. Y’ think they’ll welcome us with open arms, an’ say ‘Come on in, an’ well done for stealin a house off of us?’

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To which Buddy’s dad replies, "Things change." And that—change—and adopting to it is another significant subject about which Belfast got me thinking, especially after Buddy also objected to the idea of leaving Belfast: "I DON’T WANNA GO TO ENGLAND!…I’ll have no friends, an’ no cousins, an’ I won’t be able to see [his girlfriend] Catherine at school…I want my Granny an’ my [grand] Pop, and I wanna do my project on goin’ to the moon…an I don’t wanna have to talk funny, an’, I don’t wanna forget what road I have to go down. . . . I DON’T WANNA LEAVE BELFAST.

Buddy’s reluctance is fully understandable, but one of the most important lessons we should learn in life is that change is one of the few constants we’ll need to face, especially in our era of rapid technological transitions. Jobs, climates, relationships, etc., etc., all seem to be in a constant state of flux. We and others will constantly age and eventually die. People who can successfully adapt to change have a real advantage in carving out meaningful lives.

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Besides providing us much to think about, the film offers us some other pleasures. One is realizing that it partially reflects the Belfast experiences of director Branagh, who also grew up in Belfast, and like Buddy moved away not long after the 1969 mob riots. And like Buddy, he apparently enjoyed going to movies and watching TV. In Belfast we see him enjoying such films as High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and watching programs like Star Trek on TV.

Also, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, Belfast features some excellent acting. Playing Buddy’s grandparents are (Dame) Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, born into a Catholic family in Belfast. I’ve seen both of whom in more British film and TV productions than I can count. And here, as usual, they’re first rate.

An especially delightful surprise was Jamie Dornan, who played Buddy’s dad. I had earlier seen him as a twisted serial killer in the three-season TV series The Fall. In Belfast he’s a likeable father and husband—and a man with good values. In addition to his words of wisdom about Buddy and his Catholic girlfriend and her family being “welcome in our house any day of the week,” he completely wins us over in one of the last and most pleasing scenes of the film. A scene that reminded me of Kenneth Boulding words about peace. It was “ploughing and sowing and reaping and making things…and getting married and raising a family and dancing and singing.”

The family and friends are gathered together. The script provides details including the following: “farewell party, the last family ‘do’. Dancing, singing, children running everywhere, drink and sandwiches.” There is still another reason for the gathering, but so as to not reveal a “spoiler,” I’ll say no more about it.

As Buddy’s mother stands on the dance floor watching the musicians, her husband grabs the mike and begins singing to her the song “Everlasting Love”:

Hearts go astray, leaving hurt when they go,
I went away just when you needed me so,
You won’t regret I come back beggin’ you,
Won’t you, forget.Where’s The love we once knew?
Open up your eyes, then you’ll realize, here I stand,
With my everlasting love,
Need you by my side, girl you’ll be my bride,
You’ll never be denied everlasting love,
From the very start, open up your heart,
Be a lasting part of everlasting love
Real love will last for ever,
Real love will last for ever!

Who knew that the guy who played a serial killer in The Fall could sing like that? (And yes, it really is his voice we hear.)