For Belfast, Kenneth Branagh was inspired by Hollywood classics

Sir Kenneth Branagh had been waiting to tell the story of “Belfast” (Focus Features) for 50 years. The noise of the city he lived in until the age of nine echoed in his head. It took the global pandemic to finally give the multi-hyphen, who was on the verge of turning 60, a reason to step away from the mainstream Hollywood actor and director of the TV series ” Wallander ”and Marvel’s“ Thor ”films in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot vehicles“ Murder on the Orient Express ”and“ Death on the Nile ”. Instead, at the start of the lockdown and feeling time was precious, Branagh brought forward a personal story that had been brewing for a long time. Every morning, in a garden shed in his country house outside London, he started writing at 9 a.m. sharp.

Making an appearance in the fall festival, “Belfast” brings the writer-director, who stayed behind the camera, back into the Oscar race. After its Telluride debut, “Belfast” won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, often the harbinger of a Best Picture nominee. Branagh is late after five Oscar nominations – for directing and starring in “Henry V”, for starring in “My Week with Marilyn”, for adapting “Hamlet” and for directing the short film “Swan Song”.

In the film, nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) lives on a street attacked by Protestants who try to drive out the Catholics who are their neighbors – his family is Protestant and does not share the hateful attitude of Catholic anti-activists. His cinephile mother (Caitriona Balfe) loves the all-encompassing community, including many Catholics they have known their entire lives. But as the unrest escalates, her father (Jamie Dornan), who works in England, is forced to transport his family away from Belfast. As he wrote, a process that Branagh found “satisfying, painful, depressing, exhilarating, infuriating and obsessive,” he told me in our video interview (above), “there was a feeling that ‘there was a certain will going on. ” Branagh was less influenced by Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”, which he avoided looking at because “I knew I was heading for a childhood story”, than by moving classics like “The 400 Blows” and “Au See the Children again “.

Sir Kenneth Branagh in Telluride

Anne thomson

And Branagh looked for ways to make the film accessible. “I wasn’t going to do it unless I could look outward,” he said. “It wasn’t about me looking into my navel. I had started to be more sympathetic and compassionate towards this nine year old boy, I also wanted to better understand what my parents had been through, consider this big change as families make decisions on important things that affect the rest of their lives. life. Were there things that people could recognize? I started to think there was.

The drama of the film is summed up in the scene on a bus where the mother begs her husband to let them stay. “Everyone knows children,” she told him. “Someone is going to scream three blocks away if something is wrong.” It takes a village to raise a child. “She was right, because Branagh remembers what it was like to see her world turned upside down, overnight. In England, they talked funny, isolated themselves inside. of a more insular unity. “Even then we knew intuitively that they had sacrificed themselves for us, my mother in particular. It was catastrophic. But it had to be done. And at the same time recognize the forge of your character. .

When he finished the script, Branagh got the green light from his siblings, “without whom we can’t make the movie”, and began to recreate the Belfast street he grew up on in a car park in suburb of London. Branagh reunited Irishmen Dornan and Ciaran Hinds, originally from Belfast, as father and grandfather, respectively, and Irish actress Balfe as mother, as well as regular muse Judi Dench as grandmother.

(Left to right) Caitriona Balfe as "Mom", Jamie Dornan as "Pennsylvania", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "boyfriend", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in BELFAST by director Kenneth Branagh, a Focus Features release.  Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features


Rob Youngson / Focus Features

And Branagh and his seven-film cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos have chosen to shoot in black and white, which brings “a greater degree of truth,” Branagh said. “Emotional truth was what we were looking for. I wasn’t going to remember precisely. Branagh positioned his camera to capture Buddy’s point of view. The camera peers through as he hides behind a railing, or sees through the hazy heat or window frames. “We are looking through the eyes of a nine year old. It would have a kind of heightened quality like the classic movies with classic compositions, portraits, a very glamorous presentation of women in particular, I think of the incredible glamor of Barbara Stanwyck. Black and white, for its ability to be lucid and clear from a forensic point of view, has a certain imaginary, fairytale quality.

During the lockdown, Branagh communicated virtually with Dublin editor-in-chief Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, obsessively reviewing the footage in his home editing room in a way he had never done before. “I spent a lot of time with archival news footage from the time, looking for perfect pieces for us,” he said. “I had the whole project in Avid, and I was able to be more specific on the performance of young Jude in particular. The forensic digs have been very helpful, I’m still trying to capture the thought. His performance is about the way he acts, contemplates and reflects. I got hold of the film in a different way.


Focus Features

And the director went to Van Morrison from Belfast to provide the soundtrack for the film, including eight of his hit songs. “Van Morrison was kind of an urban hero for us,” Branagh said. “It’s always eye-catching; you couldn’t quite guess where it was coming from. A boy from Belfast shouldn’t have that touching sound. He was influenced by American music, and his music has a street connection, it’s the music of a local boy. He has a soul. He has a voice that sounds like a full orchestra. Some of his most famous songs seemed to have been written for the movie. Only one was: “Down to Joy,” which opens the film.

In Telluride, Branagh was unprepared for his own reaction to seeing his black and white film on the big screen. “Once you start putting it together and showing it to people,” he said, “that’s where the tidal wave of emotions hit. I felt unmanned several times when talking about the movie, understanding what some people found in it. The first night in Telluride a woman patted me on the shoulder in the dark, some of her tears hit my face as she tried to speak. She came out, “I’m a grandmother,” then walked away. That’s all she had to say.

And its cast was also moved; Dornan had just lost his father when he watched a film for the first time about a man who loses his father. And Balfe had just given birth to her first child. “What I hadn’t seen or revisited was the feeling that he had produced and that had stayed with me,” said Branagh, “the feeling of a break from a period of installation and security in a perhaps imperfect but meaningful happiness in a minute in your life when you start to hide.

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