Kenneth Branagh on Belfast, his autobiographical drama “50 years in the making”

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Kenneth Branagh tells us about the genesis of his Oscars-tipped new tale of a childhood during the Troubles, which received its European premiere at this year’s festival.

Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s 18th film as director and his most personal to date. Set in the Northern Irish capital at the start of the Troubles, the semi-autobiographical film is a moving and elegant coming-of-age tale focusing on nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) and his family.

It’s August 1969 when Buddy’s street in a Protestant neighbourhood erupts into violence. Catholic homes are attacked by loyalists and cars are blown up. Barricades are erected at the end of his street, with British troops soon mobilised to the area to man checkpoints. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) returns home from his job in England only to be harassed by a soldier and local thugs keen to enlist his sons in carrying messages and more. 

Soon his thoughts turn to shipping his son, daughter and wife over to the safety and opportunities of the mainland. For Buddy’s mother (Caitríona Balfe) and the whole family – including the pair likely to stay behind, granny (Judi Dench) and pop (Ciarán Hinds) – leaving Belfast will be heartbreak. Is it better to stay behind and tough it out in dangerous times or leave everything that you’ve ever known for a better life?

Branagh has assembled a fine cast who give it their all on screen, from young newcomer Hill to national treasure Dench and the ever-reliable Hinds. The film’s riot sequences have an energy and danger to them, but it’s the film’s emotional honesty and humour that make Belfast a dead cert for big awards. He even manages to work in references to his beloved Tottenham Hotspur and the club’s Northern Irish captain of the ’60s, Danny Blanchflower.
Aside from brief colour bookends portraying modern Belfast, the film is captured by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos in lustrous monochrome. It also features nine lively songs (eight classics and one new recording) from Belfast native Van Morrison, so looks and sounds the part too.

Having begun writing on 23 March 2020 (the day Boris Johnson announced the first COVID-related lockdown), Branagh spent eight weeks on the script, but as he explains: “I showed the film to Christopher Nolan and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Eight weeks and 50 years.’ On the whole things come out quickly if they’ve been brewing for a long time.”

The shoot took place in August and September the same year mostly on specially built sets in the UK, partly to avoid travel and COVID complications, but also because “we thought about recreating 1969, finding the real places, they didn’t really exist, or you had to demodernise them in a major way.”

On the day of Belfast’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Branagh was on lively form as he sat down to discuss making the film, shoplifting and how his love of westerns influenced the piece. Read the full interview here.