Kenneth Branagh's Belfast transports viewers back to the Northern Ireland of his 1960s childhood, when the Troubles roiled the streets of the neighborhood he grew up in — and many more like it. But even though the film is set in the past, the writer/director sees clear allusions to the same social and political fault lines that run through present-day America. More importantly, those formative experiences gave him firsthand awareness of how quickly divisions can turn to violence, and he points to the Jan. 6 insurrection — when supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol — as one such flashpoint.
"[I remember] the incredible rapidity with which the violence in the movie was experienced by us on our street," Branagh tells Yahoo Entertainment. "It became a Code Red so quickly. When on January 6 of this year in this great nation's capital, events of that day escalated in the way they did, one was reminded about how that kind of action can spread in such a relentlessly aggressive and out of control way in the twinkling of an eye." (Watch our video interview with Branagh and the Belfast cast above.)
In the case of Northern Ireland, the Troubles raged for nearly 30 years between the 1960s and the 1990s, and claimed almost 4,000 lives before a ceasefire was declared in 1998. Belfast takes place in 1969, and follows a working class family modeled after the Branaghs: Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan play versions of the director's mother and father, while Jude Hill plays their 9-year-old son Buddy, based on the young Branagh. It's through his eyes that we watch the religious split between Catholics and Protestants, and the political split between Unionists and Loyalists, turn neighbor against neighbor.
"The film's politics extend to that which can be seen by a 9-year-old boy, and how it affects him personally" the director explains of how he approached the political dimension of his story. "At one point, he falls in love with a Catholic girl, and he wrestles with what that means. Does it mean it can't happen? I always thought it should be at the level that allowed for the boy's point of view to evolve during the course of the film and activate in the minds of the audience their own view. The movie's not trying to sell anybody on anything particularly, but it is inviting some consideration of what these kinds of conflicts bring up."
Branagh's own hope is that children today are less susceptible to the kinds of divisions that plagued Ireland during his boyhood and are sparking outrage around the U.S. now. But he also recognizes that kind of change isn't possible without the commitment of older generations. That's why he's gotten involved with such organizations as the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, which seeks to place young Catholic and Protestant students in the same classroom from the beginning of their education as a way to avoid the "tribalization" that can set in as they grow older.
"My observation is that the idea expressed in the film of, 'You're either with us or you're against us,' is just not a helpful way to understand another person's point of view," Branagh says, referring to the tribalist argument that's frequently heard in American headlines and from politicians. "I believe in the multi-pluralist society we live in [change] is possible, and yet it obviously takes a great deal of effort. I'd like to think young people are ready to be much more inclusive and understanding, but I guess we always need to be on guard against our capacity to slip leisurely back into tribalism."
Balfe, who recently welcomed her first child with husband Tony McGill, echoes Branagh's hopes that the next generation won't repeat the same mistakes as the last. "I don't think kids see things that way — I think they're taught it. It's really heartbreaking when you do see young children regurgitating hate messaging because that's what they've learned. What a waste to spoil something so pure. I really believe that, as adults, we have the responsibility not to pass that down to children.
"Not only in America, but throughout the world, we've all become so divided," Balfe continues. "Everyone seems to be positioning themselves in this tribe or that tribe. What I hope people can take from this movie is that we have so much more in common than we do differences. It's important to reach across divides and remember communities should be comprised of lots of different people and we should be embracing each other. As an Irish person, I've seen how my country has paid the price for over 30 years, and it would be such a tragedy for that to happen over here."
Amidst the drama of the Troubles, Branagh seized the opportunity to incorporate some of his happier childhood memories into Belfast. In one scene, Buddy is glimpsed reading a Thor comic while waiting for his father outside of a pub — a knowing wink at the director's own future. "That was where I first encountered the comic," says Branagh, who grew up to direct 2011's Thor, which introduced the Asgardian Thunder God into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "It was a little bit of childcare when my father would go in and put a few bob on a horse. It might take a few minutes, so setting the boy outside with a copy of that month's Thor was a very nice way to keep me quiet!"
And like any self-respecting Thor fan, Branagh made sure to take the shout-out seriously, featuring an issue that Buddy's father would have found on newsstands in 1969. "It was definitely from that period... the stories hadn't gotten quite so exotic yet — it was still basically the Norse myth-influenced stuff. It was more about the strength of the character; I don't know why he struck me so strongly, but he did. The first time I sat down with Marvel and Kevin Feige, I remember that moment [from my childhood] in Belfast, and it had a big influence."
Fortunately for Branagh, Hill is equally passionate about all things Thor.
"I am a Thor fan; I'm an entire Marvel fan. I love everything they do." That's one of the many things that the young actor has in common with his alter ego. "I don't think me and Buddy are that different. We're both film fans and both have the same personality, and we like the same things. Maybe not our football team, though! He supports Tottenham and I support Liverpool. That's the only thing."
Belfast premieres Nov. 12 in theaters.
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee