Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s 18th film as director and his most personal to date. Set in the Northern Irish capital at the start of the Troubles, the semi-autobiographical film is a moving and elegant coming-of-age tale focusing on nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) and his family. 

It’s August 1969 when Buddy’s street in a Protestant neighbourhood erupts into violence. Catholic homes are attacked by loyalists and cars are blown up. Barricades are erected at the end of his street, with British troops soon mobilised to the area to man checkpoints. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) returns home from his job in England only to be harassed by a soldier and local thugs keen to enlist his sons in carrying messages and more. 

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Soon his thoughts turn to shipping his son, daughter and wife over to the safety and opportunities of the mainland. For Buddy’s mother (Caitríona Balfe) and the whole family – including the pair likely to stay behind, granny (Judi Dench) and pop (Ciarán Hinds) – leaving Belfast will be heartbreak. Is it better to stay behind and tough it out in dangerous times or leave everything that you’ve ever known for a better life?

Branagh has assembled a fine cast who give it their all on screen, from young newcomer Hill to national treasure Dench and the ever-reliable Hinds. The film’s riot sequences have an energy and danger to them, but it’s the film’s emotional honesty and humour that make Belfast a dead cert for big awards. He even manages to work in references to his beloved Tottenham Hotspur and the club’s Northern Irish captain of the ’60s, Danny Blanchflower.

Aside from brief colour bookends portraying modern Belfast, the film is captured by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos in lustrous monochrome. It also features nine lively songs (eight classics and one new recording) from Belfast native Van Morrison, so looks and sounds the part too.

Having begun writing on 23 March 2020 (the day Boris Johnson announced the first COVID-related lockdown), Branagh spent eight weeks on the script, but as he explains: “I showed the film to Christopher Nolan and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Eight weeks and 50 years.’ On the whole things come out quickly if they’ve been brewing for a long time.” 

The shoot took place in August and September the same year mostly on specially built sets in the UK, partly to avoid travel and COVID complications, but also because “we thought about recreating 1969, finding the real places, they didn’t really exist, or you had to demodernise them in a major way.”

On the day of Belfast’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Branagh was on lively form as he sat down to discuss making the film, shoplifting and how his love of westerns influenced the piece.

Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill on the set of Belfast (2021)

Belfast is a really personal story. Why did you choose to write it?

I think it was, as Mr Nolan suggested, 50 years in the making. The leaving of Belfast was definitely the most critical life event for me, because it was wrapped up in violence and disruption. It resulted in a profound change. Life was really never the same again for me. It affected many, many people in profound ways that reverberate to this day.

How to write about it was the thing that eluded me. I’ve done much writing over the years, plenty of it in the bottom drawer – screenplays and novels that are ongoing pieces of work. But this one, I think the lockdown itself made me introspective about the story in a period when we were enduring our own lockdown.

As soon as that violent event happened, the street was sealed off, barricaded either end. You had to check in and check out. You’re suddenly signing yourself into your own street – a quite bizarre experience. Police and soldiers were present in ways that you’d never understood before, and friends and neighbours were gone.

Eventually, of course, we left and were removed from that situation where it takes a village to raise a child. We had benefited from that large communal experience of life, many cousins, many siblings from my parents. The beginning of the lockdown made me look inward and this lockdown unlocked that one.

How close is what we see on screen to what actually happened?

Well, it’s through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. So he was already seeing things, perhaps like the images of his parents, more glamorously than realistically. I think my parents were pretty glamorous. Few people are as good-looking as Caitríona and Jamie, but my mum and dad certainly had some electrical zing between them. They’re definitely in a passionate relationship of great ups and downs. 

It’s very hard to achieve objective truth, but this is also at 50 years’ distance through the eyes of a kid who loved films. Westerns gave you good guys and bad guys and a way of understanding how justice might be meted out.

But there’s a large part of it that is based on the evidence. To give us quite an extreme example, I did get involved with looting that supermarket and my mother did drag me back there to redeliver the box of washing powder, which was a tipping point. It was absurd, and she realised that I had been fallen prey to the madness, the fervour of the mob in full flow and that something probably had to change.

Belfast (2021)

Did you ever shoplift a Turkish Delight, as we see young Buddy do in the film?

Yes, and it was really as absurd as that. A less successful crime team there could not have been. It was as instant as happens in the film. And I don’t know why. I was genuinely astonished. I thought the Stasi were watching us when that policeman showed up. The guy running the shop, they knew everybody. It was down the bottom of the street on the corner; it was not like it was five streets away. We weren’t that smart. So yes, I was visited by a very sort of gothic authority figure in that policeman. Although they all seemed that way to me, as you can tell from the presentation of the preacher. It felt like all the authority figures were phenomenally scary.

There are references to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), John Wayne westerns and even Star Trek. Presumably these were quite important to you when you were growing up?

They were sort of ritualistic points. Star Trek was always on at that stage. This was ‘69, so two years after the original series was made. It would play on a Saturday tea-time. And at that time we always visited my granny. As the bit of childminding while they talked grown-up things, we would watch Star Trek. Fifty years later, I did a Shakespearean play reading with William Shatner and I couldn’t get the image of him being on the telly out of my mind as he was playing Falstaff. He was very, very generous about it.

The westerns were so exotic. I loved the graphic nature of the images, particularly John Ford westerns on television. I was seeing big colour pictures, like The Searchers (1956), in black and white on the television at that time. But The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which features here, was one where you had Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef. These were all larger than life figures. Some of whom I felt like I was seeing in the world around me. 

In fact, our villain, if you like, Billy Clanton, takes his name from one of the members of the gang who fought at the O.K. Corral against Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. And Colin Morgan, who’s wonderful in the part, very much reminded me of Jack Palance from Shane (1953), another movie villain, very memorable with the raven, black, glossy hair. These were men’s men in a man’s world. They were an incredible hunk of machismo that dominated that world.

Perhaps the most significant postwar event of Britain and Ireland, certainly until COVID, is the Troubles. To what extent did you feel pressure to do justice to real-life events?

I knew that I was going to be looking at this through the lens of a nine-year-old’s vision. Often we’d put the camera where he would be, by barbed wire or seeing things through heat haze or through the bars of a staircase or whatever. Once he has been unsettled, the ground has literally been pulled from underneath his feet and there are no longer paving stones, there’s just sand. All the paving stones are piled up at the end of the street. Then I think, he becomes the viewer. In that sense, it allows the film to not be overtly political in as much as he’s hearing it and trying to put things together in snatches. Ninety per cent of the pieces of archive news footage are real. And they’re all time accurate as well in terms of when they appeared in terms of the timeline. 

You’ve worked with Judi Dench many times over the years. Could you tell us about your collaboration on this film?

I went to see her. She can’t read scripts easily anymore because of her eyesight. I had to read it to her – the whole thing – and act everything out. That was a bit nerve-racking, but also began to tell me that the whole thing would be quite an emotional experience for me. And Judi, who has a lot of Irish blood, was quick to understand the character and this matriarch’s pillar-like position at the centre of things, often observing things in the film. Often set back in frames, looking over walls and window panes, just reminding people, “I’m not deaf back here, you know, just in case you’re thinking of ignoring the silly old women who just do the housework. I think you’ll find we run the place.”

She knew the suburban warrior that was underneath this person in terms of surface appearances to the men of that story.

She has a very good relationship with her own grandson and that understanding of the way sometimes deep relationships jump a generation, she got. When she first came in, the first thing she did was to make a beeline for young Jude Hill. For her it was all built around that boy, that performance, and also [the fact] that it would be that young boy’s energy and life prospects that she eventually devotes this act of sacrifice to at the end, just giving them, in a way, permission to go, and buying the heartbreak.

Belfast (2021)

How did you and your cinematographer create the look of the film?

We knew that we wanted to be framing often from the boy’s point of view but also to include many elements of performance. There’s a scene at Christmas time when Buddy has just been told that he’s going to have to leave Belfast. Jude is in the corner of the frame, right-hand foreground, his brothers behind him and the two parents are right in the back, deep background. We were inspired by a certain kind of Wellesian shot, deep focus in the background, the talk going on there, but the subject of the talk very much alive in the foreground. 

Jude had done his breakdown scene earlier in the morning and actually fell asleep during this piece. So we had to tell them to be very quiet in the background as parents would be, when an overstimulated, over chocolate-tised kid is asleep.

Otherwise, we were always looking for the graphic. Frankly, we were trying to find our own Monument Valley, the John Ford world. We were looking for those in the cranes and in the wide shots of the city and in the sense of concrete and buildings being very present to a nine-year-old. And we were trying to find that poetic quality that the photography of Cartier-Bresson gives, where there’s a poetic dimension to finding ordinary people, if you can call anybody ordinary, staring into a middle distance that is telling you something about their lives.

We had this possibility of punctuating it with the incredible sort of infusion of colour that ’60s widescreen movies certainly gave this imagination. It literally blew my mind first time I saw Yellow Submarine (1968) or these sort of the films, which I later found out had probably been produced on stimulants in some way, shape or form. But psychedelic was definitely what it felt like.

In my imagination, a boy living in a place on the same latitude as Reykjavik – so pretty grey and pretty cold – that punch of colour from going to the cinema was something we thought could make a really strong tension in the film. It’s an escape route. It’s the direction, to some extent, that my life was headed anyway.

Belfast screened as the American Airlines Gala at the 65th BFI London Film Festival. Find tickets.

Belfast is in cinemas 25 February 2022.