My tumultuous childhood in Belfast: Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical new film

The summer of 1969. Man has just landed on the moon for the first time, proving how progressive humanity can be. But here on Earth, new excuses were found to rekindle an old conflict in Belfast, Northern Ireland. And all this witnessed by a young Kenneth Branagh.

Already seen as a strong Oscar favorite, Sir Kenneth’s autobiographical film Belfast takes in both the personal and the political as a community tears itself to pieces.

This is a piece of British history that few of us know about, even if it heralded the beginning of The Troubles, a 30-year conflict that impacted so many. Here Nicole Lampert and Gabrielle Donnelly reveal everything you need to know about the film…

Jude Hill (pictured) stars as Buddy, the fictional young Kenneth Branagh, in Belfast

LIFE PUT ON HIS HEAD IN THE AFTERNOON

Sir Kenneth with Jude Hill playing the young hero

Sir Kenneth with Jude Hill playing the young hero

It’s easy to forget that Sir Kenneth, a titan in the British acting establishment, is a Northern Irishman in his bones.

Born in 1960 to a Protestant working-class family in Belfast, he lived a happy and peaceful life until The Troubles broke out following campaigns by Catholic civil rights activists for a more equal society. Within days, barricades were built and neighbors bombarded each other with gasoline.

‘Belfast is a city of stories and in the late 1960s it went through a tumultuous period where my family and I became entangled,’ says Sir Kenneth. “It took me 50 years to find the right way to write about it, to find the tone I wanted.

‘At the beginning of the film we see a world in transition. From neighbourliness, sunshine and community, it is turned upside down by the arrival of a crowd that moves like a swarm of bees and destroys this peace.

“I remember life turned upside down one afternoon, almost in slow motion, not understanding the sound I was hearing, then turned around and looked at the crowd at the bottom of the street and life was never, ever the same. ‘

A CITY WHERE EVERYONE KNEW EVERYONE

The story begins with Buddy, a fictional young Kenneth played by Jude Hill, who roams the streets, his main concern being just how to have more chocolate and less church in his life. His passion is going to the cinema – especially to see westerns. As the movie shows, the Branaghs were a huge clan and he was never alone.

“We were many,” Sir Kenneth says. “I had a really, really big family, which meant you felt safe and knew who you were.

“My mother had eleven brothers and sisters, my father five, so I had dozens of cousins. We would all meet in each other’s homes.

‘Belfast is a small city in the sense that everyone knows everyone. It was actually more of a village than a city, because you couldn’t get lost. If you didn’t know where you were, you’d go up to someone and say, “My mom is Frances,” and they’d say, “Oh, I know Frances, she lives in that house, go ahead and get home.” It was a very intimate place.’

LADY JUDI THE KIND GRANDMOTHER

Lewis McAskie as Will, Caitriona Balfe as Ma, Judi Dench as Granny, Jamie Dornan as Pa and Jude Hill as Buddy

Lewis McAskie as Will, Caitriona Balfe as Ma, Judi Dench as Granny, Jamie Dornan as Pa and Jude Hill as Buddy

Buddy’s beloved grandmother is played by Dame Judi Dench, a friend of Sir Kenneth. He showed up at her house one afternoon with the script.

Sometimes I felt like I was writing a western

Kenneth looked at how other filmmakers had told their personal stories and was particularly captivated by Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain And Glory.

“It was based on his life, but fictionalized to some extent, and that’s what I did. Buddy is a fictional version of me and he begins to filter his experiences through exposure to a lot of movies and TV.

‘Those images on the big screen had a huge impact on the development of my imagination and I wanted to show Buddy with those same experiences.

“He likes westerns and Belfast had a western city vibe, so sometimes I felt like I was writing a western built in Buddy’s mind.”

Pictured: Kenneth on the replica of Belfast Street they built in Hampshire

Pictured: Kenneth on the replica of Belfast Street they built in Hampshire

“My eyesight isn’t good and Ken came over and read everything to me,” says Dame Judi, who has macular degeneration.

“My mother was from Ireland and was a fiery, passionate person, and I fully understand Grandma’s relationship with Buddy. I have a grandson with whom I am very close.’

Ciarán Hinds, who plays Buddy’s grandfather Pop, grew up on the same streets of Belfast as Sir Kenneth, but on the other side of the divide.

“I was Catholic and Ken was Protestant, so we had never met, but the film opened huge things in my heart about history, time and youth,” he says.

VELVET BLACK AND WHITE GLAMOUR

The film was shot in black and white to create the feeling of being in a movie with goodies and baddies from Buddy’s point of view. “It’s a Hollywood black and white, a velvety, satiny black and white that makes everyone look more glamorous,” says Sir Kenneth.

“That was what I wanted to use because a nine-year-old boy can see his parents as hugely glamorous and it also makes everything seem bigger than life.

“There is a certain spirit and vitality to Belfast that I hope is reflected in the film, along with some life-affirming humour. I hope people feel the joy and sometimes the sadness of the city and what happens to the family…

A RICH, DEEP AND COMPLICATED HISTORY

Born in Belfast, best known for The Fall and 50 Shades Of Gray and now on BBC1’s The Tourist, Jamie Dornan appears as Buddy’s father Dad, a carpenter who works in England because there are more jobs there, but who goes home every other week returns to Belfast.

“I know men like that,” Jamie says. ‘My father was such a man. His father before him was such a man. I think even before the conflict started, there’s something about the people of Belfast who are a little bit up to it.

“It’s never been a particularly easy place to live. From the beginning of time, Belfast has been fraught with complications. There is not a person my age who grew up in Northern Ireland who was not affected by The Troubles.

‘Nothing touches me more deeply than going home to that country – it’s deep in my soul and I want to tell stories of where I come from. I come from a place with a very rich, very deep and complicated history. Many great stories come from that, and I think it’s important to tell them.’

Pictured: Granny and Pop, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, with Buddy

Pictured: Granny and Pop, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, with Buddy

A TYPICAL STREET IN BELFAST – IN HAMPSHIRE

Because Belfast has changed so much since 1969, and because they were filming during the pandemic, it was decided early on to build a replica of Belfast Street at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire. The Belfast family formed a ‘bubble’ that closely linked them.

“We did some shooting in Belfast, but the pandemic made it unfeasible to take over a real street and ask people to leave their homes,” says production designer Jim Clay.

‘The street we eventually built no longer exists, but one of the striking things about Belfast is that many of the streets have hills and countryside across the rooflines in one direction and the docks in the other. That way you always know where you are.’

WHY THE MAN WAS FOR THE SOUNDTRACK

Another Belfast native, Van Morrison, provides most of the soundtrack, including creating a new song for the film. “When I was the age of Buddy in the film, Van Morrison was already a legend from Belfast,” says Sir Kenneth.

‘That voice, that unique combination of folk and soul and country and jazz and rock had just conquered the world. His music spoke of places in the city such as Cyprus Avenue.

“So his birthplace was in his work and to have his music in a movie called Belfast seemed like a magical alliance and a real gift to this movie.”

Belfast hits theaters on Friday.

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