Writer/director Kenneth Branagh brings a very personal story to the screen with the dramatic film, Belfast. The film focuses on nine-year-old Buddy, played by newcomer Jude Hill, a movie-loving, happy child from a working-class family. Buddy’s carefree childhood is suddenly shattered when the conflict between Catholics and Protestants rips his normally friendly neighborhood apart.
Kenneth Branagh’s childhood inspired the film which he wrote in 2020 and filmed during the Covid-19 pandemic (following strict safety guidelines). Hill was a standout during a lengthy casting process and for the adult roles Branagh turned to actors who would bring an extra level of authenticity to the characters. Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe is Irish, and Jamie Dornan (The Fall) is actually from just outside of Belfast. Branagh cast Ciarán Hinds to play Buddy’s grandfather, and it turns out Hinds grew up a mile from where Branagh lived in Belfast. Branagh turned to his frequent collaborator Judi Dench to round out the main cast in the role of Buddy’s grandmother. (Dench’s mother was from Dublin.)
Focus Features’ Belfast has been generating Oscar buzz (Variety has it at the top of their Best Picture predictions list), and the cast and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker are earning rave reviews for the stunning black-and-white film set in Belfast in the late 1960s. And it was obvious during their recent Critics Choice Association press conference in Los Angeles that making this film was a genuinely moving experience for all involved.
“It came out of that silence that a lot of us stared into at the beginning of the lockdown. It certainly sent me back to this other lockdown that we experienced where both ends of the street were barricaded. You ended up looking inward – I think a lot of us did this during the pandemic, separated from things that were so familiar to us that we perhaps took for granted…and particularly from people that we took for granted. I think it was a chance to look back. I wanted to shake hands with a nine-year-old kid,” said Branagh becoming visibly emotional while explaining why now was the right time to tell this story.
Branagh believes during this current pandemic, just as happened back when he was a child in Belfast, many people made enormous numbers of sacrifices. “Those sacrifices – those family moments – I think a lot of people from around the world understand. We all have our versions of them. It seems to be one of the beautiful things that the film seems to have unlocked for people is moments in their own life when…I don’t know…they’re suddenly told that Father Christmas doesn’t exist,” explained Branagh. “When you leave, in whatever sense, a home or a place, I think that re-adjustment involves dealing with some form of loss which can be painful. The result can also be beautiful. But it’s bittersweet like life is sometimes and going back to look at it at a time when we were all considering those difficult losses in our own lives and what is valuable to us sort of meant that it had to come out.”
Dornan touched on the responsibility of honoring the people from Belfast and revealed participating in a screening there was one of the most remarkable experiences of his life. “We care so much what people from Belfast think of this movie. It’s not strictly only for the people from Belfast, but god they’re important. The story of what people from that part of the world have been through is vitally important. It’s been told in many different guises before to success. There’s a place for what Jim Sheridan did in the ‘90s and recent films that are focused more on the sort of the troubles themselves. But to see a normal, hard-working family and the impact that the beginning of the conflict had on them I think is really important,” said Dornan.
The cast and Branagh also touched on shooting specific scenes, bonding as a cast, their characters’ relationships, and the joy of delivering Belfast to an audience during the nearly one-hour press conference (embedded above).