Kenneth Branagh Explains the Very Personal Reason 'Belfast' Is in Black-and-White
The film's writer-director tells EW how the visual approach ties to his own childhood memories.
Entertainment Weekly, 15 November 2021
When one thinks of Kenneth Branagh, one typically conjures an image of something Shakespearean or perhaps Hercule Poirot and his distinctive mustache.
But his latest film, 'Belfast', is quite unlike anything we've seen from him before. For starters, it's a reflective chronicle of a version of his youthful days in his home city in Northern Ireland as the explosion of political unrest known as the "Troubles" presents his parents, Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) with an impossible decision — to leave the only home they've ever known or seek safety elsewhere. But more than that, it's shot in black-and-white and riddled with references and nods to classic Westerns, Branagh's favorite genre growing up.
While joining EW for a conversation at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival (see the video above), Branagh, who wrote and directed the film, explained the reasoning behind those two unique creative choices. "The black-and-white came about through this curious idea of people say, 'It's all there in black-and-white' as if that's an additional level of authenticity. You see it in black-and-white, it's more real than it was, even though that's not how we see the world," he said. "But black-and-white carries that kind of quality. It also has this kind of poetic quality."
"Belfast is in the north, it rains a lot, it can be quite grey," he quips. "And for me, there was always going to be a balance between seeing life in black-and-white, which photographically can be very beautiful, but we use a kind of liquidy, silky, velvety black-and-white. I would call it a Hollywood black-and-white, a way in which Buddy, our 9-year-old, saw the world rather glamorously and then when we use color in the movie, it kind of explodes in his mind in the same way as movies were exploding for me. The film as much as anything is the story of a love affair with film, a love affair with going to the movies and so, the black-and-white started all of that."
Drawing off that love of film, Branagh injects many nods to classic Westerns, including High Noon and Shane, whether it's showcasing Buddy (Jude Hill) watching them on television or in a theater — or Buddy imagining the figures in his life as part of one of these films. "American movies were a huge influence on me when I was a child, and Westerns particularly," Branagh said. "Because there was a world in which there was a moral universe. There was a bad guy, there was a good guy. The bad guy would get defeated by the good guy. The good guy would get the girl. Along the way characters always seemed to be Ma and Pa, they were mythic figures, and somehow to give them this single name somehow embodied security and strength."
Besides the more obvious nods to the Westerns in film clips, use of score, etc., Branagh tried to invoke that in Buddy's overall worldview and his own direction. "There's a scene in the movie where Buddy's dad, or Pa, goes to the back door to meet the bad guy, who's coming to extort money as he might try to," he explained. "We see Buddy's view of him from behind. It's a big back. It looks like the poster for Unforgiven, that Clint Eastwood movie where the character's hunched over, he's got a gun behind him. There's a huge, glowering sky behind."
"For me, when we were doing it, I talked to the actors about this being the scene in a Western where Pa goes to the gate of the homestead and the bad guys have ridden in and they're going to threaten them and Ma's in the background with the kids," he adds. "Those part of tropes and myths were part of what for this 9-year-old kid whose own life is being turned upside down...how do you make sense of that? He tries to make sense of it from what he knows from the movies. And in the movies, there are perfect people like Ma and Pa and there are good guys who win and there's a world that's simpler. And somehow he tried to find a sense from the movies that he can apply to his own very unsettled existence."
Watch our full interview with Branagh above. Belfast is in theaters now.
A portion of this conversation is also included in the season premiere of EW's The Awardist podcast, available below and wherever you listen to podcasts. Our new season covers the road to the 2022 Oscars with interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ruth Negga, and more Oscar hopefuls.