Kenneth Branagh Pays Loving Tribute to Family, Resilience and the Magic of Movies in ‘Belfast'
The director and his creative team worked together seamlessly to realize the filmmaker's most personal movie to date
The Hollywood Reporter, 19 January 2022
There’s a riveting sequence near the beginning of Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s remembrance of things past that focuses on his boyhood in that Northern Ireland city, when the otherwise idyllic world of Buddy, Branagh’s 9-year-old alter ego, turns on a dime. The scene is specifically time-stamped “15th August, 1969,” and Buddy, played by Jude Hill, is fighting imaginary dragons with a makeshift sword and a trash can lid used as a shield. It’s a warm, cheerful scene in a working-class neighborhood where everybody seems to know each other’s name.
Then, in a time-warped moment, a swirling, 360-degree shot centered on Buddy’s POV reveals an angry mob emerging from the end of the street. Suddenly all hell breaks loose, replete with torches, Molotov cocktails and the smashing of windows. That trash can lid is now being used by Buddy’s mother (played by Caitríona Balfe) to protect her son from hurled bricks. It’s a stark turning point for Buddy and his family, confronted for the first time by the sectarian violence known as “The Troubles” between Protestants and Catholics (loyalists to the crown and those wishing to secede from the U.K.), who in Buddy’s world had lived together in relative harmony up until that moment.
In a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter for its inaugural Masters of Craft series, Branagh, who was joined by his creative team, notes that his movie — which alternates between traumatic disillusionment and joyful optimism — was not meant to be a dissection of that conflict, but a microcosmic view of “one family, one group of Protestants and Catholics, with people not really directly involved in politics trying to understand what is a complicated picture.” But he also draws parallels to the chaos that erupted stateside on Capitol Hill barely one year ago.
“I think that [opening sequence] indicates in a way what drives the underlying energy of the film as it goes on,” says Branagh, “which is the astonishment at the acceleration, the rapidity with which, from a peaceable situation, a violent one emerges. Some people in this country said to me it reminded them of January the 6th. The intensity and the acceleration of a situation which begins with a demonstration and then becomes something more difficult … this sort of astonishment that it could happen so quickly.”
That all-enveloping opening sequence constituted the most challenging to assemble in Branagh’s film, in which an introductory tracking shot appears both dolly-driven and handheld.
“We had fairly limited resources and time,” says DP Haris Zambarloukos, a frequent Branagh collaborator. “And, with Ken, every shot had to be earned in a certain way. It’s a very kinetic Steadicam shot that reveals the kind of joyous part of the day where everything is still peaceful … We also wanted to center the film around the POV of a 9-year-old boy, and that’s quite a difficult thing to do when so many things are happening. Ken always kept saying, ‘Everything turns inside out for this boy.’ And that, to me, dictated what we should do. I suggested a circular track that would center around our young boy. But I would say the idea to shoot in a full circle twice, until the culmination of the bomb going off, on a 9-year-old actor takes a lot of commitment and courage from our director.”
The entire sequence, using 200 extras and executed using COVID-19 safety protocols, was shot in three takes, from which the filmmakers ended up using the first, indicating the level of deep prep going in. It also gave the editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle approximately 15 hours of material to whittle down to less than 15 minutes.
“We had two cameras for the other material, so we were able to go through [the footage] like magpies and pick out all the wonderful stuff,” says Dhonghaíle. “But the guys shot so quickly and our edits were so quick that it was quite a visceral shoot and a visceral edit. All three takes were beautiful. And everything landed on time, so it was just Ken and I watching the little boy’s performance, and which face allowed us to experience it through him the most.”
The street was built from scratch by production designer Jim Clay and his team at the end of a runway at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire, England.
“We were beginning this production as the world, as the nation, was tentatively stepping out of the first lockdown,” says Clay. “So many productions had gone into mothballs and there were no stages or backlots available, so we had to pick our space where we could. And we did do some scouting; we went with Ken and Haris to Belfast for a weekend. But that was essentially research because in our newly socially distanced world, real locations were not an option. And it’s very much Ken’s style anyway to build as much as possible and to be able to control the world we create.”
The film was shot primarily in glorious black and white, inspired equally by Hollywood’s golden age glamour photography and the British “kitchen sink” classics from the late ‘50s/early ’60s such as This Sporting Life and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning — working-class dramas that depicted gritty realism with exquisitely etched chiaroscuro lighting.
“Ken and I both love black-and-white films,” says Zambarloukos. “I would say that 90 percent of the films that we refer to are in black and white. We both love that era of Hollywood. We both love [Frank] Capra and the work that Joe Walker, his cinematographer, did. And there was always something in those films that we’ve tried to emulate in our other films, usually staged indoors, in soundstages, where we control the lighting. We actually did the opposite here. It is all with available lighting. However, we took the aesthetics of exposure and contrast and we applied them to a more naturalistic approach to photography.”
“We just found ways where basically nature and sunlight played its part to give us a very, very broad and rich kind of black and white,” adds Zambarloukos. “I learned a lot from the photographer Ansel Adams, who did landscapes and created the Zone System where before you even take a picture, before you set a tripod, you have to in your mind know where the whitest white is and the blackest black is, where a face should be. And we approached things in that way.”
The film’s monochromatic palette was aided and abetted by costume designer Charlotte Walter’s clothes, which, in Zambarloukos’ words, gave the filmmakers “fantastic tones.”
“I started with a point of just wanting them to look very real and authentic,” says Walter, who noted that the world of Belfast in 1969 was a far cry from the Carnaby Street fashions associated with swinging ’60s London. “And as far as the fabrics [and] textures were concerned, I chose them with the idea of them being three-dimensional in black and white, but also so they have interest. As far as the black and white’s concerned, it just made the costumes look even more authentic, in my opinion.
“I think it was a joy in this film because you could make people look real but in a subtle way that it’s not so screamingly 1960s,” Walter adds. “But very much 1960s. It was what people wore who did the shopping, who did the housework. But I think also it’s about that 1960s silhouette. So for Ma [Balfe], she couldn’t have been in any other period. Her silhouette was late ’60s. I think that’s what’s important. And she’s still fitting into the neighborhood.”
Tellingly, the scenes that involve color are when the family attends the local movie house, where such films as One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are presented in eye-popping Technicolor, providing the kind of escapist fare that proved a salve during tumultuous times, and a beacon for Buddy’s future. “What was behind it was the idea that every time the kid goes toward art, it is in color,” says Zambarloukos.
Adds Branagh, reflecting on his own move from Belfast to London at age 9 and his eventual career in the performing arts: “It won’t just be leaving Belfast, it’ll be heading into movies and into the theater — all the things that literally blow his mind with color.”
Needless to say, the casting of Buddy was crucial, involving some 300 self-made tapes, with the filmmakers settling on Hill, “a very patient young man who went through five, six rounds of audition, ultimately improvising with his own screen brother Will, played by Lewis McAskie,” recalls Branagh. “And thank God he hadn’t become some over-mature monster. [He’s] somebody who could be in the moment, who could be very, very present. Half of his performance was going to rest on him listening, on him reacting. And so we needed to feel that when we spoke to him in any context, that he wasn’t just thinking about the next thing that he might say.”
Branagh trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company before his breakout feature as a filmmaker, Henry V (1989). He’s become known for his Shakespearean adaptations, as well as his lavish studio productions based on Agatha Christie novels, working triple duty as director, producer and lead player (as French sleuth Hercule Poirot). But it’s taken him more than 30 years to tackle a film as personal as Belfast.
“I think perhaps because it’s so personal,” Branagh explains about the time gap. “I think you get to a point where you recognize that the story you have is worth telling because it may intersect with a lot of other people’s experiences. The basic Irish DNA says do not talk about your own personal suffering — they’d never have used that word ‘suffering.’ They don’t talk about their own personal history because other people will have had much more difficult versions of it. So we never talked about that riot; we never talked about that looting; we never talked about how difficult it was to leave. We just got on with it.
“It was very, very, very difficult for [Branagh’s parents] when they moved over,” he adds. “But they bought safety for the kids [and] economic opportunity for the family above their screaming desire to stay in a place they called home. And it inevitability had a huge impact on me, which has infused every other movie I’ve ever made. But I’ve never quite acknowledged that’s where it came from. That’s where the building blocks were … And as my sister said when she read the script, ‘You know, for a very quiet man, a very private fellow, you’ve really put it all out there.’”