Belfast is a movie straight from writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s own experience. A humorous, tender and intensely personal story of one boy’s childhood during the tumult of the late 1960s in the city of Branagh’s birth.
“‘Belfast is a city of stories,” says Branagh “and in the late 1960s, it went through an incredibly tumultuous period of its history, very dramatic, sometimes violent, that my family and I were caught up in. It’s taken me fifty years to find the right way to write about it, to find the tone I wanted. It can take a very long time to understand just how simple things can be and finding that perspective, years on provides a great focus.”
“As the story percolated inside me, I realised that it was not only about a very recognisable small family group in a stressful situation, facing some big life choices. It was also about a different kind of lockdown, inside the barricades at the end of our street in 1969 and inside the constraints that were tightening around the family as they struggled with the decision about whether to stay or to go. So, some of the circumstances when the story is set reflected and resonated with today’s preoccupations around the pandemic – confinement and concern for the safety of yourself and your family.”
Branagh sat down to write Belfast during the first lockdown of the pandemic in 2020
“The story of my childhood, which inspired the film, has become a story of the point in everyone’s life when the child crosses over into adulthood, where innocence is lost. That point of crossover, in Belfast in 1969, was accelerated by the tumult happening around us all. At the beginning of the film, we experience a world in transition from a kind of idyll – neighbourliness, sunshine and community – which is turned upside down by the arrival of a mob who pass through like a swarm of bees and lay waste to this peace. When they’ve gone, the street is literally ripped up by worried people who now feel they have to barricade themselves against another attack, and that is exactly how I remember it. I remember life turning on its head in one afternoon, almost in slow-motion, not understanding the sound I was hearing, and then turning around and looking at the mob at the bottom of the street and life was never, ever, ever the same again. I felt that there was something dramatic and universal in that event because people might recognise a crossover point in their own lives, albeit not always as heightened by external events.”
Looking for a way to describe his approach to the story, Branagh was struck by the way Pedro Almodóvar described his film Pain and Glory
“He called it auto-fiction. It was based on his own life but fictionalised to some degree and that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve written it very much through the eyes of a young boy, Buddy, who is a fictional version of me. He is starting to filter his experiences through exposure to a lot of films and TV and many other imagination-based encounters and stories. Those big-screen images had an enormous impact on the development of my imagination and I wanted to show Buddy having those same experiences. He loves Westerns and Belfast had something of the Western town about it so at times I did feel as if I was writing a Western that was being constructed in Buddy’s mind. The films he is watching have a clear sense of good guy vs bad guy, good vs evil, and he is able to latch onto that as he looks at the bad guy who lives at the end of the street who he sees punching people and who might even have a gun. So, it’s not an accurate version of anyone’s life because it’s the version that’s playing inside Buddy’s head. Through the lens of time, 50 years on, there’s no question that what Buddy sees isn’t precisely what I saw but there’s certainly a poetic truth inside what emerges, which comes out of something authentic and which I think is the stuff of most drama. But always, the point of departure for everything in the film is the imagination of that nine-year-old boy.”
Branagh hopes that audiences will be entertained by Buddy’s story
“There is a certain spirit and a vitality in Belfast that I hope is reflected in the film, along with a very life-affirming humour. I hope people feel the joy and sometimes the sorrows of the city and what happens to the family and that they both recognise it and sympathise with it and understand, by looking at the reflections of other lives, to feel that we are not alone. If that’s what people get from the film, I would be thrilled.”
Once the screenplay was finished, in the spring of 2020, it moved very swiftly into production
Casting and pre-production took place in the summer and the film was one of the first to be allowed to start shooting, on locations in Northern Ireland and England.
“We tried to find the positive aspects of filming in a pandemic,” says Branagh “and one of them was that because the cast had to live in a bubble, a sense of family was very quickly engendered which was so central to what we were after.”
“I’ve always found something very compelling about seeing great child performers presenting that moment in life where you have to ‘put away childish things’, as the minister says in our film,’ says Branagh. ‘It happens in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory where the Blitz is the background for an accelerated childhood. Christian Bale in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun was a breathtaking performance. Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants is staggering in the way those kids break your heart. And you can tell that all of those films were incredibly personally important to their directors. They were stories they needed to tell, and they all had a significant influence on this one.”
“In Jude Hill,” says Branagh, “we found a boy whose talent was ready to blossom but who was still enjoying himself as an ordinary kid. Playing football was as important to him as making the film and that’s what we wanted. At the same time, he was always very serious about the work, very prepared and very open. I was asking for a curious combination – I wanted him to just be himself and I also wanted him to be able to make all the tiny performance adjustments that I was also asking for. And he really delivered. He has an extraordinary openness and is so natural in front of the camera that it was sometimes hard to believe this is his first film.”
“The first time I read the script I thought it was great,” says Jude “and then I went and looked up everything in it I didn’t understand, like some of the Belfast slang, because I’m not from Belfast city itself, but I’ve definitely learnt a lot of it now. Buddy is like me because he has blonde hair and he loves football, even though he supports the wrong team.’ Jude is a passionate Liverpool supporter while Buddy is a Tottenham Hotspurs fan. ‘And he had a bit of a wonky childhood, being dragged into things, but he came good in the end.”
For the adult cast, Branagh’s primary requirement was a high level of authenticity
“Caitríona Balfe, who plays Ma, is from Ireland but grew up near the border and has an understanding of the vernacular and of the Irish extended family life,” he says. “Jamie Dornan, who plays Pa, is a real Belfast boy, from just outside Belfast. Ciarán Hinds, who plays Buddy’s grandfather, Pop, was brought up about a mile from where I lived in Belfast. Judi Dench has Irish blood – her mother was from Dublin – and is anyway an acting thoroughbred whose research is meticulous and who can do anything. And this group of actors also had a sense of front-footed energy that I liked, an outgoing quality that meant they became a real family very quickly.”
A film set in Belfast also provided the opportunity to work with several excellent Northern Irish actors like Colin Morgan, Turlough Convery and Conor McNeill.
Recreating the Belfast of the 60s
To create something as personal to him as the street he grew up in, Branagh turned to Production Designer Jim Clay with whom he had worked on his three previous projects: Death on the Nile, Artemis Fowl and Murder on the Orient Express.
“We walked the streets of Belfast together,’ says Clay. ‘The street we ended up building doesn’t exist anymore, but you can still find a real sense of the city as it would have been in the late sixties. I also discovered what a small city it is. One of the most noticeable things is that in many of the streets you can see hills and countryside over the rooflines in one direction and in the other, you can see the shipbuilding docks. So, you always know where you are.”
Branagh was delighted at the freedom the set gave him. “It meant that we could create exactly what I wanted and have room to shoot it from every possible angle. In particular, it meant that I could film the street exactly the way that nine-year-old Buddy would see it, containing all the things that would strike him. So we could create a kind of tension between the idea that you live in a real, gritty and absolutely literal place but that for a nine-year-old, it could become everything he wanted it to be – castles, wild west towns and mountains where dinosaurs roam. It could reflect the fact that the imagination of a nine-year-old knows no limits.”
The film is shot in black and white by Branagh’s regular Director of Photography, Haris Zambarloukos, with whom he had worked on seven previous films including Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, Cinderella and Thor.
“I grew up on both colour and black and white movies,” says Branagh “but there was what I later learnt to call a “Hollywood black and white”, a kind of velvety, silky, satiny black and white in which everybody seemed more glamorous. That was what I wanted to use because a nine-year-old boy can see his parents as tremendously glamorous and it also allows for everything to seem larger than life. When we see black and white photojournalism, like Cartier-Bresson, it delivers an additional authenticity even though it’s not the way that we actually see the world. It’s a curious paradox that you, therefore, get a gritty and more realistic effect from a poetic treatment. So, I wanted that “Hollywood black and white” to be part of the mythology of this story, making even the most prosaic of environments feel glamorous or epic.”
Write-director Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh is one of the world’s most consistently acclaimed filmmakers, directors, and actors, whose work is trademarked by quality, truth, and passion. He has been nominated for five Academy Awards (in five different categories), and five Golden Globes; he has won three BAFTAS and two Emmys.
In addition to the 2021 release of Belfast, Branagh will star in Michael Winterbottom’s five-part drama This Sceptred Isle for Sky Atlantic and Disney will be releasing his Death on the Nile, a follow-up to his hugely successful Murder on the Orient Express. He directs and also plays Hercules Poirot.
He has continued to juggle acting and directing for both screen and stage, shooting a string of box-office and critical hits, including Cinderella (2015), Marvel’s Thor (2011), and playing critically acclaimed roles in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), Dunkirk (2017), and an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA-nominated performance as Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn (2011).
His love of Shakespeare has always been front and centre, and he is often credited with bringing the Bard to the multiplex with Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006).
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company (formed 2015) held a year-long residency at London’s Garrick Theatre; a sold-out season that included The Winter’s Tale, Romeo and Juliet, Red Velvet, The Painkiller and The Entertainer with Branagh in the lead role in the latter. Other theatrical endeavours include The Play What I Wrote, and five-star performances on the British stage in Richard III, Mamet’s Edmond, Ivanov, and the comedy Painkiller at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, Branagh’s hometown.
On the small screen, Branagh’s successes include the BAFTA-winning series Wallander; Shackleton for Channel 4; and Conspiracy, among many others.
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he won the Bancroft Gold Medal, Branagh succeeded Lord Attenborough as President of RADA in the summer of 2015. He continues to mentor young actors and received a Knighthood in 2012 for his services to drama and the community in Northern Ireland.