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‘Belfast’: How Kenneth Branagh Crafted His First Best Picture Oscar Contender

Branagh's most personal film — starring Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe — may finally earn the five-time nominee an Oscar.

Belfast

Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciaran Hinds in “Belfast”

Focus Features

Over Labor Day weekend in Telluride Colorado, Sir Kenneth Branagh was pinching himself. He was actually going to premiere his new movie to a theater full of cinephiles. “‘Belfast’ is the story of something that happened to me when I was nine years old,” he told the opening night audience, “and which changed my life forever. It also affected many, many others in profound ways that reverberate to this day. I’ve been waiting and wanting to tell this story for 50 years, and repeatedly hearing during that time the sound of this city and its people making such cacophonous and beautiful noise in my head. So at the beginning of this lockdown, I knew that finally, attention must be paid. So after 50 years, I listened. And I wrote down what I heard.”

By the end of the weekend, after multiple showings, “Belfast” was the crowdpleaser of the festival. “It was a very charged experience,” Branagh said in a recent interview in Los Angeles. “When we got there, first of all I was impressed by the size of the venue and the size of the screen, all these basic things that accompany the release of a film, and then how many people were there. I hadn’t been in a room with that many people in two years, so it was a bit overwhelming.”

What he did was listen. “Shakespeare always talks about hearing a play,” he said. “As a filmmaker, you become sensitive to the quality of listening. I have been in many uncomfortable rooms when you hear the faint ambient hiss of disinterest. But then you hear the pin-drop stuff. I felt I was hearing that, and hearing an intensity of feeling, that has to do with the rest of that group there being together as a community.”

He wasn’t prepared for his own reaction to seeing his black-and-white film memoir, set during the turbulent troubles in 1969, on the big screen. “Once you start putting it together and start showing it to people, that’s where the tidal wave of emotions hit. I have felt unmanned at various times talking about the film, understanding what some people found in it. The first night in Telluride one woman tapped my shoulder in the dark, some of her tears hit my face as she was trying to speak. She got out, ‘I’m a grandmother,’ then walked off. That was all she had to say.”

And his cast was moved as well; Jamie Dornan had just lost his father as he watched for the first time a film about a man who loses his father. And Caitriona Balfe was watching the film after having just given birth to her first child. “She was highly emotional, this was inside the world of COVID,” said Branagh. “What I hadn’t re-experienced or revisited was the feeling that it had produced and that had stayed with me, the feeling of a rupture from a period of being settled and secure in perhaps imperfect but significant happiness into a minute in your life when you start hiding.”

Sir Kenneth Branagh at Telluride

Anne Thompson

The global pandemic gave Branagh, who was about to turn 60, permission to move away from a spate of mainstream Hollywood acting and directing projects, from TV’s popular “Wallander” series and Marvel’s “Thor” movies to the Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot vehicles “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile.” Instead the filmmaker felt a new pressure — “there was a sense of precious time” — to turn back to something far more intimate and personal that had been stuck in a bottom drawer.

“Lockdown invited this introspection,” he said. “I was aware of the new silence, particularly struck by the fact that airplanes weren’t in the sky. Walking the dog, there was more room to think. Suddenly one’s mind expanded a little. What came in to fill the vacuum were the sounds of Belfast, this unmistakable, irresistible pull toward what I understood to be the most significant change in my life, because it made such a profound change in where I lived and who I was, my identity.”

The story focuses on nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives on a street that is suddenly under attack from Catholic rioters trying to push Protestants like his family out of the area. His movie-loving mother (Caitriona Balfe) wants to hang on to their way of life, surrounded by neighbors and family like Buddy’s grandparents (veteran charmers Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench) who they’ve known their whole lives. But as the Troubles continue, his father (Jamie Dornan), who works in England, feels forced to consider moving his family out of the country.

Writing “Belfast” “was necessary,” said Branagh, who started to write every day at exactly 9 am. “I had begun to understand that for me writing required discipline, starting at a regular time in the morning, early in my little shed in the garden,” he said. “I did the primitive trick that the day before I knew maybe a first sentence or a first something for the next day.”

“Belfast”

Focus Features

Like directing, for Branagh writing is not fun, exactly. “It can be satisfying, distressing, depressing, exhilarating, infuriating, and obsessive,” he said. “But there was a sense that there was some volition being unleashed.” Branagh did not need “Roma” to inspire him; in fact he had long avoided watching it. “I knew I was headed toward a childhood story,” he said, “and I didn’t want to be influenced.” He did recall such classics as “The 400 Blows” and “Au Revoir les Enfants,” which always makes him cry.

Branagh tried to find ways to make the movie universal. “I wasn’t going to do it unless it I could look outwards,” he said. “It was not about me gazing into my navel. I’d begun to be more sympathetic and compassionate toward that nine-year-old boy, I also wanted to understand better what my parents had been going through, consider that big change as families make decisions about things that are important that affects the rest of their lives. Were there elements that people could recognize? I began to think that there were.”

With the script complete, Branagh had to face his siblings before he could proceed. “It was a very vulnerable moment,” he said, “to expose the screenplay to my brother and sister without whom we can’t make the film, without their approval there was no point carrying on. Just as I couldn’t make it unless I found the boy.”

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

“Belfast”

Rob Youngson / Focus Features

With their go-ahead, he started to recreate the Belfast street he grew up on in a Farnborough parking lot outside London. And he and Haris Zambarloukos, his go-to cinematographer on seven films, decided to shoot in black and white — never a popular choice for film distributors. For Branagh, black and white implies “there is a greater degree of truth. Emotional truth was what we were after. I was not going to remember accurately. We’re looking through the eyes of a nine-year-old. It would have some kind of heightened quality, I knew, like the classic films with classic compositions, portraiture, very glamorous presentation of females particularly, I think of the incredible glamour of Barbara Stanwyck. Black and white, for its capacity to be lucid and forensically clear, has some quality of the make-believe, the fairy tale.”

Branagh placed his roving, moving camera “where the boy might be, or where his view would be expressed, by lowering cranes or houses, as his innocence is taken from him.” The camera looks through things as he hides behind a bannister rail, or sees through a heat haze, or window frames. “It’s a visual aesthetic formed out of the intuitive sense that black and white was the way to go,” said Branagh, “velvety Hollywood black and white, in Irish terms the liquid quality of the photography is swimming through Guinness, shot through with flashes of color.”

Like many kids, Buddy is young enough to idolize his parents, “before deciding they’re full of flaws,” said Branagh. “He can see them as glamorous individuals.” Thus Branagh cast two gifted and gorgeous actors to play his mother and father. While he had admired Caitriona Balfe in “Outlander,” the intense car fight with Christian Bale in “Ford v. Ferrari” convinced the director she had the right stuff to play his mother.

“She’s from the South of Ireland,” said Branagh. “Her father was a police officer. They moved to a border town when she was quite young and had a frisky time. She knew about that struggle. My own mother and father had that electrical fizz between them, she had that passionate thing. And my mother on a limited budget loved fashion, loved clothes. I sensed a depth in Caitriona, a passion, and sense of fun.”

Caitriona Balfe in “Belfast”

Focus Features

And both Balfe and Dornan were “normal,” said Branagh. “For good-looking people, sometimes that can have been a burden for them, they get self-involved or insecure in other weird ways. I like people who get on with it. I loved him in ‘The Fall,’ the guy was from Belfast. In all cases, he could bring something. These depictions were not literal documentary accounts of my family, but again they had the capacity to listen. The thinking is a powerful thing to do, to have that capacity to be present and react and have a big wedge of feeling as well.”

Having worked with Dench many times before, Branagh trusted her to know if she could take on the role of family matriarch. “Judi Dench is a timeless figure, which one can’t take for granted,” he said. “But she is a rigorous, artistic puritan. If she isn’t right for something, she says so. She likes to be frightened; her deep end was the accent. She played opposite Ciaran as husband and wife. He lived around the corner, was a Catholic, I happen to be Protestant, for us that’s immaterial, he knew how important the differences were then.” When Branagh visited Dench at her home, because she has troubles with her eyesight, she asked him to read her the entire script. He complied. “She liked to know what the story was.”

“Belfast”

Focus Features

During the pandemic, Branagh worked with Dublin-based editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle virtually from his country home outside London, and enjoyed obsessing in his home editing suite to find moments he wanted to include. “I spent a lot of time with archive news footage of the time, trawling to find perfect bits for us,” he said. “I had the whole entire project in the Avid, and was able to be more precise about in particular young Jude’s performance. Forensic burrowing was super-helpful, I’m always trying to capture thinking. His performance is about how he acts and contemplates and reflects. I got my hands around the film in a different way.”

And the director went to Belfast native Van Morrison to provide the movie’s wall-to-wall soundtrack, including eight of his hit songs. “Van Morrison was something of an urban hero for us,” said Branagh. “He is always ear-catching; you couldn’t quite work out where he was from. A boy from Belfast shouldn’t have that soulful sound. He was influenced by American music, and his music has a connection to the street, it’s the music of a corner boy. He has soul. He has a voice that’s like a complete orchestra. Some of his most famous songs felt like they were written for the movie.” Only one was: “Down to Joy,” which opens the movie.

After Telluride, “Belfast” continued on the festival circuit, picking up the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, often a harbinger of a Best Picture contender. His most personal film could finally win Branagh the Oscar. He’s overdue after five nominations — for directing and acting in “Henry V,”  acting in “My Week with Marilyn,” adapting “Hamlet,” and directing the short “Swan Song.” This time he could win something.

Focus Features releases “Belfast” in theaters on Friday, November 12.

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