The plaudits for “Belfast” seem to be endless. They started in September at the Toronto film festival, where Kenneth Branagh’s coming-of-age-movie set in 1969 won the People’s Choice Award. And they’ve kept pouring in ever since, in the form of nominations from dozens of prominent critics groups and guilds. Earlier this month, SAG nominated the “Belfast” cast for best ensemble — in addition to singling out Caitriona Balfe for her impassioned turn as Ma, a no-nonsense mother of two boys caught in the crossfire of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The sustained recognition Balfe has been enjoying has provided an unexpected second act to her “Belfast” experience (all while upping the Oscar buzz). “It’s been such a wild ride,” the actress told TheWrap. “When we started this journey a year ago, we were shooting during the pandemic. We never really knew what was going to become of this film. I think we were just all so focused on the fact we got to be working — and we got to be working on such an amazing project. That was the beauty of it at the time. The fact that it’s just kept going and is having all of these amazing accolades, it just feels really great.”
As Ma, Balfe struggles to hold together her tight-knit family while the Troubles engulf their once peaceful Belfast neighborhood. She cares for her young cinephile son Buddy (Jude Hill) and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), often with help from her delightful in-laws (Ciarán Hinds as Pop and Judi Dench as Granny) while her husband (Jamie Dornan) travels to England for work. The film is based on Branagh’s own early life in Northern Ireland, before he and his family moved to England when he was 9 to escape the brewing war. And this, of course, presented Balfe and her fellow actors with a significant responsibility.
“It’s kind of a crazy thing to be asked to play a version of a director’s mother or father, but the beauty of it was that from day one, Ken put this trust in us and made us all feel like he wanted us to bring as much of ourselves to it and meet what he had already put on the page,” she said. “It took all the pressure off and it allowed us to kind of be free because I think the most important thing a director can give you is their trust, and give you confidence that you’re doing the right thing. And that you’re the right person for the role.”
Though Balfe has seen her fair share of action and battle scenes throughout six seasons of Starz’s “Outlander,” the riot scenes in “Belfast,” where Protestant vigilantes storm Buddy’s block, were her favorite to film. Molotov cocktails are hurled, bullets are fired, barricades are breached — while innocent bystanders like Ma and her family run for cover. “I mean, the whole thing felt like some sort of magical little excursion we got to take. We’d been locked down for five months and then we were released into this world of Ken’s imagination,” she said. “But the riot days — it’s the energy. When you get a big group of people together like that and see how excited little Jude was by everything that was going on. He was just absolutely buzzing on those days. There was an energy around the set constantly, but on days like that it was really special.”
Shooting during the pandemic immediately created a sense of camaraderie among Balfe and her co-stars, despite strict COVID-19 safety restrictions. (Or, in Dench’s opinion, because of those restrictions: “Perhaps it was the rigor of that that brought us together very much as a family very quickly,” she recently told TheWrap.) “It’s funny,” Balfe said. “Jamie and I have spoken about this so many times. When we were filming, we never had really cast dinners or anything like that, which you would normally have. But because of that, we all had to make a special effort to get to know each other and we became pretty close while we were filming.”
Now, of course, with omicron raging and threatening to turn yet another awards season into a string of virtual events, Balfe hasn’t had as much contact with her “Belfast” family as she’d like. “We’ve only really managed in this whole kind of crazy press tour that we’ve been doing to have dinner once,” she said. “And we all were like, ‘When we get to L.A., we’re going to have a day where we all get to hang out and just relax.’ And sadly, that feels like it’s not really going to happen. But this is a tough time for people and the fact that we have a film that we get to promote that we feel so strongly about, that’s still a very special moment.”