Kenneth Branagh on How the Story of ‘Belfast’ Echoes Today, From Brexit to Washington

TheWrap magazine: “This position of ‘Either with us or you’re against us’ doesn’t allow for understanding or movement,” the writer-director says

Caitriona Balfe in "Belfast" / Rob Youngson/Focus Features

This story about “Belfast” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. 

Directors have been exploring their childhood memories on screen for decades, and the honor roll of notable films that have come from that exploration ranges from François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” to George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” from Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants” to Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” from John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” to Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” Writer-director-actor Kenneth Branagh has now tried his hand at the genre, and to say that “Belfast” brings out the best in him would be an understatement.

Visually stunning, emotionally wrenching and gloriously human, “Belfast” takes one short period from Branagh’s life, beginning in the summer of 1969, and finds in it a coming-of-age story, a portrait of a city fracturing in an instant, and a profoundly moving lament for what’s been lost during decades of strife in his homeland of Northern Ireland.

Branagh sat down with TheWrap to talk about his film alongside some of the cast members who brought his memories to the screen: 11-year-old newcomer Jude Hill as Buddy, a movie-obsessed boy who is a clear stand-in for Branagh, who was 9 years old in 1969; Caitríona Balfe as “Ma,” a woman raising two sons in a friendly Belfast neighborhood that suddenly erupts into sectarian violence; Jamie Dornan as her husband, “Pa,” who often travels to England for work and who wants to take his kids out of an increasingly dangerous environment; and Ciarán Hinds as “Pop,” Buddy’s grandfather. (Judi Dench plays his wife, “Granny,” but was unable to make the trip to Los Angeles.)

Kenneth, what made you want to tell an autobiographical story?
KENNETH BRANAGH Well, I was finishing “Death on the Nile” and it got interrupted by COVID. Everything that we were hoping to do was stopped. I’d been making notes about a story about Belfast, because initially I thought that maybe I could do something about my grandparents when they were young people. My granny used to talk about when she was in her late teens, when she was something of what you might call a fast woman. I thought, maybe there’s a story there, but they were gone and I couldn’t go back to them and work it out.

But I kept coming back to our family’s leaving of Belfast, which was a big thing. And that was a lockdown. Both ends of our street were barricaded, which is an image that will never leave me. It was a normal day, then that happened and you’d come out the door and you literally can’t get out of the street. It was a complete transformation. So we were in the middle of our lockdown and those images of that other lockdown started to come back and pour out.

I remembered how my life changed when I heard the sound of what I thought were bumblebees. They weren’t, they were rioting mobs. In 20 seconds, the direction my life would take changed completely. And I decided I would go back to that incident and work out what a 9-year-old might think about that.

Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill on the set of “Belfast” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

Ciarán, what do you remember of that time?
CIARÁN HINDS I was 16. It was exciting, and then it became very dark. It was very present, but we were slightly distant from it because of where we lived. It didn’t actually spread all the way to us until several years later, when a couple of bombs went off and two people were killed in the shopping complex near us. But the actual rising (to Branagh), you would have been closer to the trouble.

BRANAGH But even we had that sense you had — that it was happening nearby, but we were getting most of our information and images from the television.

HINDS Yeah. And aurally, because you’d hear it. You’d hear how close the explosions were. And then there was shooting at night, and you’d hear the ricochets off the hills that surrounded the Belfast Lough (an inlet at the port of Belfast).

JAMIE DORNAN Oh, God, yeah. Even where I grew up, in Holywood, I was right on the Belfast Lough. And if there’d be a bomb anywhere in greater Belfast, our windows would shake and you’d think it had happened on our street. We had this front room that had a window that somehow survived. We moved in in late 1986 and thought, “We’ll probably get a new window, that one looks tired.” We lived there for 25 years, never changed that window. But it used to bang anytime there was an explosion.

I remember an early girlfriend who was English — this is in peace times, you know, post the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. We were sitting there, and there was this noise on the window. And I said, “That’s a bomb.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Wait 15 minutes and check the news.” Sure enough.

Caitríona, you didn’t grow up in the North — but you were close to the border, right?
CAITRÍONA BALFE Yes. It’s funny, I remember when I was about 13, myself and my friend Sandra were at a place in the center of Monaghan called Dinkins. There’s three floors, and we used to buy our coffee or whatever, and then we’d go up to the very top floor and sneak cigarettes. (To Jude Hill) Don’t ever do that.

But there was a bomb scare in Monaghan that day. We didn’t realize it ‘cause we were up at the very top, but the entire center of the town, where this coffee shop was, had been cleared and there was police everywhere. We’d been up there smoking away. We came down 45 minutes later and my sister found me and I got a whack across the face, because they had been searching for me and the whole town had been closed off.

Jude, did you know much about that this period in Northern Ireland?
JUDE HILL I didn’t know anything about the troubles or Catholics or Protestants, because a kid my age wouldn’t really know about it unless their parents or grandparents were affected by it. But I think as you grow up, you’ll probably learn it in, like, secondary school. I think it’s a really important part of Irish history, but for a kid my age it’s ancient history.

Well, when they start to teach it in school you can say, “I know that — I already made a movie about that.” Kenneth, how tricky is it to essentially cast characters that are based on yourself and your family?
BRANAGH The main instinct was that it didn’t matter to me that it be a documentary reconstruction. There were some incidents I wanted to definitely include, but I knew that if it was going to have a life elsewhere, it needed to be something that would be very different.

I remember talking to our hair and makeup designer, who asked for pictures of our family. I said, “You can have them, but they really don’t have to look this way.” It’s not pure therapy. I’ve been through that bit of that, as it were. Now we’re trying to make a film that might be of interest to more people.

I’m a little bit older than you, and I grew up a very long way from Belfast, in Southern California. But I have to say that when I saw Caitríona in the movie, I thought, “My mom used to dress like that.”
BALFE There’s a certain ferocity to Irish mammies, but in the last few days so many people from all over the world have said to me, “I recognize my mom in her.”

Did you work together a lot before shooting? It feels like such a family—between Ciarán and Judi, you can feel all the decades in little lines or gestures.
HINDS I guess Ken put us in a situation, manipulated us without us being aware.

BRANAGH I don’t think anybody can really manipulate this group.

HINDS He gave us the space of the room to sound each other out and to know each other very quickly, with the storytelling of our own childhood on the table right away. “What was your childhood like? How did it feel?” So then we knew each other very quickly, within an hour of meeting.

DORNAN Totally. It’s exposing and revelatory. And hard. But it’s a great way to break down any walls that might be there. I think so much of the beauty of the family dynamic, and the authenticity of it, was on the page already. And credit to Ken for feeling that this is a blend of people that would work well together and would be believable as a family. Once you feel that trust, that you are those people — and not just any family, his family or version of his family — that trust is important and it eases you.

HINDS And sort of beautifully focused, maybe because of COVID — because of these barriers that were in the way of communicating in our everyday life, as we were wearing masks and kept separate. When we came to meet, the focus was kind of immediate and dynamic and not to be wasted. There was no time for play. Play went on, but we just kept motoring.

Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in “Belfast” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

BRANAGH Judi had a big, strong influence in that. She’s playful, she’s ready, she’s interested, and very open about being scared. (To Hill) Were you scared, by the way, on the first day when you came in?

HILL I was really excited, but underneath all that excitement, I was a tiny bit scared. I was shaking before going in. But as soon as I saw you all, I was just put at ease.

DORNAN And our first scene together, we were just walking. It was basically like a camera test. We’ll go for a walk, but you can’t even see the camera — it took a lot of the pressure off.

BRANAGH A lot of it comes from figuring out how I could not be nervous as an actor. You don’t start on a Monday morning, because I don’t sleep well on Sunday night. You start on a Thursday afternoon. Let’s just walk down this street for this first scene. But Jude, when you say, “Dad, will we have to leave Belfast?” it’s a really important line. And there’s a level of preoccupation you might have had because of first-day nerves, a certain vulnerability that feels real.

HILL (To Dornan) I remember the first day I met you, I was meeting the rest of the crew at the home-base thing. And you had, like, a cap on, glasses and a scarf around your mouth so no one knew who you were. I was talking to someone, and you tapped me on my shoulder and said, “I’m playin’ your da.” And I was like, “Wha?”

DORNAN (Laughing) It must have been a mask. I wouldn’t be wearing a scarf around my head!

HILL I didn’t know who the hell you were.

DORNAN You don’t have a television?

Jamie and Caitríona, we only know you in the movie as Pa and Ma. Did you come up with names that you shared with each other or kept to yourselves?
BALFE No, weirdly I didn’t. Maybe I should have, but I think there’s something lovely about just being Ma, so I went along with that. I think it’s different for every job, but there was something about her that felt so recognizable. I understood her, and I didn’t feel like I needed to create a backstory.

DORNAN For me, Ken’s father was called Billy and we have a Billy Clanton in the movie who’s the nemesis. So I couldn’t really go with that. But I think, similar to Caitríona, that there’s a universality to it this way. Although I remember there were a couple of times, particularly if we were improvising, when I thought, “He would use her name here.” But I didn’t have one for you, so I had to work on a way of getting your attention without using your name.

The movie is very specific in the way it opens by telling you the exact date when these events happened: August 15, 1969. But at the same time, the tale of a community that’s divided is not foreign to today.
BRANAGH Probably, alas, it’s always a good time for a movie like this. From time immemorial, we’ve had these stories — “Romeo and Juliet” would come to mind as an example of a story dictated by, in that case, allegiances to families being the tribal position that you take that cuts across everything and says, “Thou shalt not be with someone from the other side.”

But this position of “you’re either with us or you’re against us” is so sweeping and so intransigent that it doesn’t allow for understanding or movement. And alas, we’re in the latest version of that. And the speed with which violence can occur, the speed with which a mob can feed off the adrenaline that those kinds of positions can take — you saw it in this country on the 6th of January this year, when something happened in Washington that you could not have imagined taking off in that way.

So I think yes, people talk a lot in this country about things being polarized. But in our country, we’ve come out of a period where we tried to make big decisions through a single yes or no vote for Brexit, with the belief that it could reduce something complex to something understandable. This part of the world, Northern Ireland, was particularly forgotten along with many other significant parts of how such an arrangement would have an impact.

And it was all born out of the emotive charge of having an allegiance. In the case of Brexit, it was, “We just want our country back,” which I didn’t understand. But there wasn’t much room for understanding to take place because those kinds of debates became so polarized. And that’s not done us much good. So maybe this movie reflects some of that.

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

Race Begins cover Belfast