Kenneth Branagh’s new movie Belfast, starring Jamie Dornan, (in theatres Nov. 12) is an autobiographical story from the filmmaker’s childhood, set during the Troubles-era conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, told through the eyes of a nine-year-old child.
Branagh transports you into 1969, while the black and white movie showcases beautifully crafted, sweeping camera movement over Northern Ireland’s capital city, these initially idyllic scenes, paired with this warm, loving working-class Protestant family, are disrupted by the chaos of riots breaking out on the streets.
“I grew up in a place where it seemed to rain a lot but there was plenty of sunshine in the hearts of the people,” Branagh said at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) premiere of Belfast. “We laughed a lot about daft things...and we held each other when we cried about serious things and generally, as a community we were there for each other, for everyone.”
“And then, as they say, things changed.”
Jude Hill plays nine-year-old Buddy, who is so sweet and charismatic, especially as we see him experience a crush on the smartest girl in his class, who also happens to be Catholic.
Jamie Dornan's personal sacrifices as a father
Buddy’s parents, Pa and Ma, are played by Dornan and Caitriona Balfe. Pa, who is often away in England for work, is a charming man who resists pressure to fight against the Catholics in the neighbourhood.
At TIFF, Dornan described Pa as someone who is “faced with difficulties,” trying to do the best thing for his family, which sometimes means sacrificing time with his children.
“I’m a father of three girls and I have to say goodbye to them...and I think I have a real understanding of what that is to go away, often for the benefit of the family, to work, to provide,” Dornan said.
“Every single step I do, since becoming a father, in my career, is for them, that’s all I really care about.”
We also get to engage with Buddy’s grandparents, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, who give Buddy a great bit of wisdom throughout the film with a great sense of spirit.
Even though they are managing financial troubles and health concerns, in addition to the tensions rising between Catholics and Protestants outside their door, there is still a great sense of comedy and wit from these characters.
What is brilliantly depicted in this story is the things that we read about and see as adults, like the famous 1969 riots between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast, aren’t processed the same way by children. There is an innocence there and a simplicity in the way these serious, real-life tensions are understood by kids.
Filming lower and playing with depth of field in Belfast, helps to completely immerse you in this story, specifically from Buddy’s point of view.
'After 50 years, I listened and I wrote down what I heard'
Branagh said that this story, based on his real experience when he was nine, “changed [his] life forever.”
“I’ve been waiting and wanting to tell this story for 50 years and over that time, I have repeatedly heard the beautiful cacophonous noise of this city in my head,” he said.
“After 50 years, I listened and I wrote down what I heard.”
Being moved to tears at TIFF as he talks about this film, Branagh explained he started writing Belfast in March 2020, citing the pandemic lockdown as something that led him to looking at things that were “precious” and “simple” that had been taken away.
“You plot a place in your life when the very simple thing is you were very happy and then in a minute, it was very difficult to deal with everything that came up,” the filmmaker said.