In association with
NORTHERN IRELAND SCREEN
Written & Directed by
Focus Features presents Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST. Written and directed by Academy Award® nominee Branagh, BELFAST is the humorous, tender and intensely personal story of one boy’s childhood during the tumult of the late 1960s in the city of Branagh’s birth.
BELFAST is a movie straight from Branagh’s own experience. A nine-year-old boy must chart a path towards adulthood through a world that has suddenly turned upside down. His stable and loving community and everything he thought he understood about life is changed forever but joy, laughter, music and the formative magic of the movies remain.
The cast stars Golden Globe nominee Caitríona Balfe, Academy Award® winner Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and introduces the ten-year old Jude Hill. Dornan and Balfe play a passionate working-class couple caught up in the mayhem, with Dench and Hinds as the quick-witted grandparents. The film is produced by Branagh, Laura Berwick, Becca Kovacik and Tamar Thomas.
Behind the camera are many regular Branagh collaborators including production designer Jim Clay, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos, hair and make-up artist Wakana Yoshihara, editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, costume designer Charlotte Walker and casting directors Lucy Bevan and Emily Brockman. The music is by Belfast-born legend, Van Morrison.
In the summer of 1969, nine-year-old Buddy knows exactly who he is and where he belongs. He’s working-class, North Belfast, happy, loved and safe. His world is a fast and funny street-life, lived large in the heart of a community that laughs together and sticks together.
Where your extended family lives in the same street and where it’s impossible to get lost because everyone in Belfast knows everyone else, or so it seems. And in every spare minute, in the darkness of movie theatres and in front of the television, American films and American TV are the transporting and intoxicating currency of Buddy’s inner life and of his dreams.
But as the 1960s stagger to a close, even as man stands on the moon itself, the dog days of August turn Buddy’s childhood dreams into a nightmare. Simmering social discontent suddenly explodes in Buddy’s own street and escalates, fast. First a masked attack, then a riot and finally a city-wide conflict, with religion fanning the flames further afield. Catholics vs Protestants, loving neighbours just a heartbeat ago, set on to be deadly foes now.
Buddy must make sense of the chaos and hysteria and of this new physical landscape of lockdown, peopled by heroes and villains, once only glimpsed on the cinema screen but now threatening to upturn everything he knows and loves as an epic struggle plays out in his own backyard.
His Ma struggles to cope while his Pa works away in England, trying to make enough money to support the family. Vigilante law rules, innocent lives are threatened. Buddy knows what to expect from his heroes – he’s spent hours in front of Westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – but can his father be the hero he needs him to be? Will his mother sacrifice her past in order to protect her family’s future? How can his beloved grandparents be kept safe? And how can he love the girl of his dreams?
The answers lie in Buddy’s compelling, funny, poignant and heart-breaking journey through riots, violence, the joy and despair of family relationships and the agony of first love, all accompanied by the dancing, music and laughter that only the Irish can muster when the world turns upside down.
Because what else can Buddy do? This is his only world. This is Belfast
‘Belfast is a city of stories,’ says Branagh ‘and in the late 1960s it went through an incredibly tumultuous period of its history, very dramatic, sometimes violent, that my family and I were caught up in. It’s taken me fifty years to find the right way to write about it, to find the tone I wanted. It can take a very long time to understand just how simple things can be and finding that perspective, years on, provides a great focus. The story of my childhood, which inspired the film, has become a story of the point in everyone’s life when the child crosses over into adulthood, where innocence is lost. That point of crossover, in Belfast in 1969, was accelerated by the tumult happening around us all.
At the beginning of the film, we experience a world in transition from a kind of idyll – neighbourliness, sunshine and community – which is turned upside down by the arrival of a mob who pass through like a swarm of bees and lay waste to this peace. When they’ve gone, the street is literally ripped up by worried people who now feel they have to barricade themselves against another attack, and that is exactly how I remember it. I remember life turning on its head in one afternoon, almost in slow-motion, not understanding the sound I was hearing, and then turning round and looking at the mob at the bottom of the street and life was never, ever, ever the same again. I felt that there was something dramatic and universal in that event because people might recognise a crossover point in their own lives, albeit not always as heightened by external events.’
Branagh sat down to write the film during the first lockdown of the pandemic in 2020. ‘As the story percolated inside me, I realised that it was not only about a very recognisable small family group in a stressful situation, facing some big life choices. It was also about a different kind of lockdown, inside the barricades at the end of our street in 1969 and inside the constraints that were tightening around the family as they struggled with the decision about whether to stay or to go. So, some of the circumstances when the story is set reflected and resonated with today’s preoccupations around the pandemic – confinement and concern for the safety of yourself and your family.’
Looking for a way to describe his approach to the story, Branagh was struck by the way Pedro Almodóvar described his film Pain and Glory. ‘He called it auto-fiction. It was based on his own life but fictionalised to some degree and that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve written it very much through the eyes of a young boy, Buddy, who is a fictional version of me. He is starting to filter his experiences through exposure to a lot of films and TV and many other imagination- based encounters and stories. Those big screen images had an enormous impact on the development of my imagination and I wanted to show Buddy having those same experiences. He loves Westerns and Belfast had something of the Western town about it so at times I did feel as if I was writing a Western that was being constructed in Buddy’s mind. The films he is watching have a clear sense of good guy vs bad guy, good vs evil, and he is able to latch onto that as he looks at the bad guy who lives at the end of the street who he sees punching people and who might even have a gun So, it’s not an accurate version of anyone’s life because it’s the version that’s playing inside Buddy’s head. Through the lens of time, 50 years on, there’s no question that what Buddy sees isn’t precisely what I saw but there’s certainly a poetic truth inside what emerges, which comes out of something authentic and which I think is the stuff of most drama. But always, the point of departure for everything in the film, is the imagination of that nine-year old boy.
I hope that audiences will be entertained by Buddy’s story. There is a certain spirit and a vitality in Belfast that I hope is reflected in the film, along with a very life-affirming humour. I hope people feel the joy and sometimes the sorrows of the city and what happens to the family and that they both recognise it and sympathise with it and understand, by looking at the reflections of other lives, to feel that we are not alone. If that’s what people get from the film, I would be thrilled.’
Once the screenplay was finished, in the spring of 2020, it moved very swiftly into production. Casting and pre-production took place in the summer and the film was one of the first to be allowed to start shooting, on locations in Northern Ireland and England. ‘We tried to find the positive aspects of filming in a pandemic,’ says Branagh ‘and one of them was that because the cast had to live in a bubble, a sense of family was very quickly engendered which was so central to what we were after. The two boys, Jude Hill (Buddy) and Lewis McAskie (Will), became like real siblings very quickly and bonded easily with the character of Moira, played by Lara McDonnell.’
RECREATING THE BELFAST OF THE 60s
To create something as personal to him as the street he grew up in, Branagh turned to Production Designer Jim Clay with whom he had worked on his three previous projects: Death on the Nile, Artemis Fowl and Murder on the Orient Express.
‘We walked the streets of Belfast together,’ says Clay. ‘The street we ended up building doesn’t exist anymore, but you can still find a real sense of the city as it would have been in the late sixties. I also discovered what a small city it is.One of the most noticeable things is that in many of the streets you can see hills and countryside over the rooflines in one direction and in the other you can see the shipbuilding docks. So, you always know where you are.
We did some shooting in Belfast but because of the pandemic, it wasn’t feasible to take over a real street and ask people to move out of their homes, so we found a very large space at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire, England, and built the entire street there. It seems crazy that we built our set at the end of a runway at a small international airport where planes were still flying, but it worked out fine! And we were able to use a nearby empty school for the hospital and school sequences.’
Branagh was delighted at the freedom the set gave him. ‘It meant that we could create exactly what I wanted and have room to shoot it from every possible angle. In particular, it meant that I could film the street exactly the way that nine-year old Buddy would see it, containing all the things that would strike him. So we could create a kind of tension between the idea that you live in a real, gritty and absolutely literal place but that for a nine-year old, it could become everything he wanted it to be – castles, wild west towns and mountains where dinosaurs roam. It could reflect the fact that the imagination of a nine-year old knows no limits.’
The film is shot in black and white by Branagh’s regular Director of Photography, Haris Zambarloukos, with whom he had worked on seven previous films including Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, Cinderella and Thor. ‘I grew up on both colour and black and white movies,’ says Branagh ‘but there was what I later learnt to call a “Hollywood black and white”, a kind of velvety, silky, satiny black and white in which everybody seemed more glamorous. That was what I wanted to use because a nine-year old boy can see his parents as tremendously glamorous and it also allows for everything to seem larger than life. When we see black and white photojournalism, like Cartier-Bresson, it delivers an additional authenticity even though it’s not the way that we actually see the world. It’s a curious paradox that you therefore get a gritty and more realistic effect from a poetic treatment. So, I wanted that “Hollywood black and white” to be part of the mythology of this story, making even the most prosaic of environments feel glamorous or epic.’
In the same vein, Branagh wanted the audience to see Buddy’s parents through Buddy’s eyes so his brief to Costume Designer Charlotte Walker and to Hair and Make-Up Designer Wakana Yoshihara was to not be too pedantically precise about their period look while sticking to what would have been possible at the time. ‘I remember Wakana coming back to me with a mood board for the look of Ma which consisted entirely of pictures of Brigitte Bardot in the 60s,’ he says. ‘For Jamie Dornan it was Marlon Brando. I loved the idea that we could bring a version of that into a working-class Belfast family without losing authenticity, that you can let the clothes and the hair tell stories in a way that is both invisible but tangible enough for us to experience the pleasures of time travel back into that world.’
The film was originally conceived with a soundtrack of popular songs from the hit parade of the late sixties but after Branagh and Van Morrison connected, the Belfast musician’s songs gradually took centre stage and the soundtrack is now almost entirely his music: eight songs from his archive, plus a new one written for the film and some haunting instrumental music.
Branagh found himself working with one of his childhood heroes. ‘When I was the age that Buddy is in the film,’ he recalls, ‘Van Morrison was already a Belfast legend. The voice, that unique combination of folk and soul and country and jazz and rock, with that edge, had just conquered the world. We had had the great Ruby Murray, whose music features briefly in the film, but Van was a trailblazer, and his music has taken on a timeless, classic status. I loved that he described himself to me as just ‘a corner boy’, someone who writes from the streets, which fitted right in with the lives in BELFAST that are lived so much on the streets. His music spoke of places in the city, such as Cyprus Avenue and of Belfast characters like Madame George. So, his hometown was in his work and to have his music in a film called BELFAST which is about another person born into city streets that forged their character, seemed like a magical alliance and a real gift to this movie.’
Van Morrison is of the same mind. ‘It’s been magical in many ways,’ he says. ‘I’ve really enjoyed being part of the film process and the friendship with Ken has been an added bonus. As soon as he first talked me through the project, I knew this was a perfect fit for me and when I read the script, I felt a really personal connection with it. Just like Ken, I have a deep affection for Belfast and the film resonates with the warmth and humour of home.’
The island of Ireland was partitioned in 1921. Six counties of the province of Ulster became Northern Ireland and remained part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The rest of the island became independent, the Republic of Ireland, (known as Eire in Irish). By 1967 there was considerable political and civil unrest in Northern Ireland about rights for the minority Catholic population which still experienced discrimination in housing and employment. In August 1969 there was violence throughout Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. Many families in working-class areas moved out of their homes or were intimidated into leaving, as the largest realignment of people since WW11 took place.
North Belfast was proportionately harder hit than any other part of Northern Ireland with more conflict-related deaths, especially of civilians.
The single most important piece of casting was of the nine-year old Buddy who appears in almost every scene and whose viewpoint and imagination lie at the very heart of the film.
‘I’ve always found something very compelling about seeing great child performers presenting that moment in life where you have to ‘put away childish things’, as the minister says in our film,’ says Branagh. ‘It happens in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory where the Blitz is the background for an accelerated childhood. Christian Bale in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun was a breathtaking performance. Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants is staggering in the way those kids break your heart. And you can tell that all of those films were incredibly personally important to their directors. They were stories they needed to tell, and they all had a significant influence on this one.’
Following the worldwide success of Game of Thrones, which was made in Northern Ireland, the BELFAST team found that there was a great infrastructure in place for casting. The first list of young boys to audition numbered around three hundred. Over a period of intense, socially distanced, work by the casting department, that list was whittled down to thirty and then to twelve, and then to a final shortlist with auditions taking place over Zoom until the very final choice.
‘In Jude Hill,’ says Branagh, ‘we found a boy whose talent was ready to blossom but who was still enjoying himself as an ordinary kid. Playing football was as important to him as making the film and that’s what we wanted. At the same time, he was always very serious about the work, very prepared and very open. I was asking for a curious combination – I wanted him to just be himself and I also wanted him to be able to make all the tiny performance adjustments that I was also asking for. And he really delivered. He has an extraordinary openness and is so natural in front of the camera that it was sometimes hard to believe this is his first film.’
For the adult cast, Branagh’s primary requirement was a high level of authenticity. ‘Caitríona Balfe, who plays Ma, is from Ireland but grew up near the border and has an understanding of the vernacular and of the Irish extended family life,’ he says. ‘Jamie Dornan, who plays Pa, is a real Belfast boy, from just outside Belfast. Ciarán Hinds, who plays Buddy’s grandfather, Pop, was brought up about a mile from where I lived in Belfast. Judi Dench has Irish blood – her mother was from Dublin – and is anyway an acting thoroughbred whose research is meticulous and who can do anything. And this group of actors also had a sense of front-footed energy that I liked, an outgoing quality that meant they became a real family very quickly.’
A film set in Belfast also provided the opportunity to work with several excellent Northern Irish actors like Colin Morgan, Turlough Convery and Conor McNeill.