Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast tells the story of a fictional nine-year-old version of himself during the Troubles in late 1960s Northern Ireland. Today, he told Deadline’s Contenders Film: London event that he had long wanted to write something about the city, but was thinking “perhaps there was a story about my grandparents,” until the pandemic came around. “I started to feel as though in a way the first lockdown that I experienced was in Belfast when suddenly after this very violent change the street was sealed at either end by two barricades. It essentially became a kind of fortress.”
Continuing, Branagh added, “I suppose I wanted to get back in touch with my nine-year- old self and to try and understand what that family was going through, what families can go through in times of great change when they have to make very, very important decisions involving sacrifice in the midst of potential danger, and somehow still find a way, whenever they can, to keep it light and to laugh.”
Shot in black and white, the film is the coming-of-age story of Buddy (Jude Hill) as his happy carefree life is turned upside down by uncertainty.
Star Jamie Dornan, who also grew up in Belfast, noted there is a “real very strong strain that runs through people from that part of the world. You know, they slightly think they’re the best people in the world, and we all have resilience. Everyone, no matter what era you were born into that city, you are born thinking you have a good sense of humor and a definite dark sense of humor and understanding of finding humor in lower moments and challenging moments.”
Did Branagh learn anything through the making of the film? “It was a constant process of discovery really. You know, you’re looking at something with 50 years of distance through a nine year old’s eyes so there’s no objective truth, there’s just what you hope is an emotional truth and a series of very vivid moments.”
Those moments include becoming aware “of a real escape which was film, going to the movies… Going to the movies in widescreen, big saturated colors in the middle of the 60s, it was psychedelically blowing my mind as it were.”
Branagh said the crew’s love of cinema and storytelling made working “a great privilege” that was intense, “We just enjoyed the bejeezus out of it. Getting to make this film every step of the way has been a miracle. Love of movies ran not only through the story of the film but through our experience of making it.”
On the whole, Branagh said Belfast has become “something else which was something that I’d hoped and prayed for — that from something specific in Belfast, something universal might be possible to be recognized.”
Check out the panel video above.