A coming of age comedy-drama written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Belfast is a semi-autobiographical film set in the Northern Irish capital between 1969 and 1970. It chronicles six months in the life of a working-class family as they navigate a violent period in Northern Irish history known as The Troubles.
a personal history
Branagh himself was born in Belfast in 1960. He left Northern Ireland for Berkshire in southern England with his family at the age of nine. It was a difficult transition, as he recalls. As an outsider, he was bullied for his accent and so took lessons to suppress it. While the move offered his family safety and work, and opened the door to his own glittering career as an actor, Branagh admits that his childhood in Belfast was the last time he really felt he belonged somewhere.
RAIN AND SUN
Belfast stars mostly local actors. Ten-year-old newcomer Jude Hill plays Buddy, through whose young eyes the story is told. Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe play Buddy’s parents, Pa and Ma. And veteran actors Ciarán Hinds and English actor Judi Dench play Pa’s parents. Belfast premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival late last year, where it won the festival’s highest accolade, the People’s Choice Award. Branagh spoke to the audience about his deeply personal film.
Kenneth Branagh (English accent): I grew up in a place where it seemed to rain a lot, but there was plenty of sunshine in the hearts of the people. We laughed a lot about daft things and we held each other when we cried about serious things, and generally as a community we were there for each other, for everyone. And then, as they say, things changed. This is the story of something that happened to me when I was nine years old and which changed my life forever. It also affected many others in profound ways that reverberate to this day. These events take place in a great northern city on the island of Ireland a long time ago, in a place called Belfast.
A PRECIOUS LIFE
Branagh began writing the film during lockdown, which in the UK began in late March and went on until May 2020. It was a time, says Branagh, when suddenly everything one took for granted was threatened, and losses from the past felt more present. After fifty years with the “voices of Belfast” in his head, he felt he could no longer ignore them.
Kenneth Branagh: The lockdown started to teach you, whether you liked it or not, about things that were precious, that were simple, that had been taken away. I’ve been waiting and wanting to tell this story for fifty years, and over that time I have repeatedly heard the beautiful cacophonous noise of this city in my head. I knew that finally attention must be paid. And I just wanted to chart the way in which you could navigate your way through all of that uncertainty and how you could try and do it as a nine-year-old kid, who had [a] loving family and movies and a great big life on the street.
FAR FROM HOME
Jamie Dornan plays Pa in the film. To pay off a debt and make a better life for his kids, Pa decides to go away to work. Division is the reality of millions of families around the world, says Dornan. As the father of three and a working actor, the pain of separation is something he can relate to.
Jamie Doran (Northern Irish accent): This is someone who’s in a difficult city in a difficult time, he didn’t know how difficult the time was about to become, but he’s already away doing what he thinks is best for the family, for the betterment of the family, and that means sometimes hardship, that means saying goodbye, that means absence. I think I have an understanding of what that is, to go away to work to provide.
BLACK AND WHITE
The film is shot in black and white with bursts of vivid colour. Branagh worked with Greek Cypriot cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who himself was inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great French photographer who pioneered the genre of street photography in the 1950s. Zambarloukos angles the camera to tell the story from the point of view of the boy, but then widens out to show what is happening in the background beyond the child’s full comprehension, as Branagh explains.
Kenneth Branagh: We wanted to start from the idea of shooting from the physical point of view of the nine-year-old boy, so lower and with the landscape of all these amazing faces or of barbed wire and the shipyard cranes; his way of looking at these big monolithic things. And we tried to see the scene playing in quite a full way, so we were always looking for those things that in some way would immerse you.
REALITY AND FICTION
Music and movies, particularly the imaginative and seductive American sci-fi movies of the late 1960s, provided both escapism and an education, says Branagh, who, in the film, wanted to capture their effect on the mind of a small boy trying to make sense of real-life conflict.
Kenneth Branagh: It was like a firework going off in my head, the explosion of colour and also, especially in the wake of all the disruption, movies became a way to see what good guys and bad guys did in movies, as it reflected what I was seeing around in the street.