Kenneth Branagh breaks down four key scenes from ‘Belfast’ | Characteristics
After a prolific career on stage and on screen in front of and behind the camera, Kenneth Branagh is entering the awards race with his most personal project to date.
Drawing inspiration from his own childhood experiences, Belfast — which he wrote and directed — follows nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) whose late 1960s island neighborhood is suddenly turned upside down by the arrival of The Troubles.
As the violence in Northern Ireland escalates, Buddy’s Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) grapple with deciding whether to leave for a new life in England – something Buddy vehemently opposes. , especially since it will mean separation from her beloved grandparents Pop (Ciaran Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench).
Shot in black and white under strict protocols during the Covid‑19 pandemic, Belfast became a major awards contender, earning nominations from both the American Producers Guild and Directors Guild, as well as six Bafta nominations, including Best Picture and Outstanding British Film. Strong naturalistic performances have found favor at Screen Actors Guild awards, with Belfast clean nominations in supporting actress (Balfe) and cast – the latter including newcomer Hill, who debuts as a young Branagh.
“With Jude, you had this feeling that something quite profound was happening to this young actor,” the director recalls. “That he must have had emotions or feelings that, as a person, he was new to. I tried to capture the best of him – the real thing that was happening before our eyes.
Hill Features in the Four Keys Belfast scenes that Screen International discussed in detail with Branagh. Spoilers ahead.
The bus ride with Buddy and Granny
The scene: Buddy and Granny share a delightful visit to the local theater to see A Christmas Carol and, on the bus ride home, discuss her past and wonder if she ever wanted to leave Belfast.
Kenneth Branagh: “I wrote down what I remembered, then I did some research and found that, yes, A Christmas Carol was at the Grove Theater in December 1969. I found the ad in the Belfast Telegraph at the time, so I knew I hadn’t dreamed it. It made a huge impression on me.
“In terms of shooting the play [which is seen in colour, like scenes from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on a later family trip to the cinema], it was a few days of celebration that we spent at the theatre. Jude didn’t go to the theater much, so it was quite an event for him. He also knew that Judi was in her natural environment, she’s a theater legend. So you captured that sense of wonder from Jude and that perfect placement from Judi. And that established this very beautiful bond between them that would continue in the bus scene.
“One of the things we were trying to do with the film was to have a sense of movement, a sense that people should go. The world wasn’t going to stop, like this boy maybe had. to be hoped for.
“We shot the sequence with process photography; the bus was on a soundstage and we had LED screens with real Belfast backgrounds. From a technical standpoint, we’ve often dealt with real buses, real trains, and they have their glories, but they can also limit you technically. For this, we wanted a very focused atmosphere that does not interfere with the natural connection between Jude and Judi.
“Judi is the least forgiving actor – if she sees a big moment she usually won’t take it. All I’ve told her is to let that moment breathe. Judi opens a window into the soul of ‘a woman who made sacrifices. She doesn’t complain about them, but they are there and we see them because of her artistry.
“The moment she does so well is when Jude, with the naivety of youth, asks her if she’s ever been to the Shangri-La [after the pair have discussed the 1937 film Lost Horizon]. She takes a moment to think before saying, “There was no road to Shangri-La from our part of Belfast. We don’t necessarily manage to climb our own individual Everests in life; we don’t necessarily get to the glitzy places we hope for. Judi manages to tap into this with a real sense of depth, without feeling sorry for herself.
The conversation at the hospital between Buddy and Pop
The scene: As Buddy sits by his grandfather Pop’s bedside in hospital, the couple have a heartfelt discussion about the boy’s fears of moving to England and leaving everything he knows behind.
Kenneth Branagh: “[Pop and Buddy’s] Natural connection was provided by the personalities of these two actors. Ciaran Hinds is a gentleman – he has tremendous soulfulness, he is a good listener and a calming presence. Her relationship with Jude was calm, but they were very comfortable in each other’s company. They saved their sparkles for when the camera rolled.
“As young as Jude is, he has a background in Irish dancing and competition, so he is used to preparing, practicing, performing and then hanging out. It’s a good base for a scene like this, where he’s going to do most of the listening but he has to balance on hot coals. It is also sensitive to the atmosphere of the scene. We’ve kept it in the air a lot that while it’s never been said, there’s an understanding in the family that when Pop goes to the hospital, he might not come out.
“We were very careful to keep all the blinds up on the windows, to see the wind in the foliage outside. We removed the furniture, so that the black and white could emphasize this transitional space, give it the atmosphere that we sometimes see in films that present a version of paradise.
“We didn’t talk about [the scene] too much. I learned as a director to leave talented people alone as much as possible. In Ciaran’s case, his connection to the material ran deep. We probably did about four or five takes on his end. With Jude, I let the camera roll and offered notes. I just threw things in so he was ready to respond.
“This scene is the heart of the film for me. It’s about understanding and getting this advice from a grandparent that could serve as your passport. The grandfather knows what the kid doesn’t know: that there will be a series of ruptures that began with violence [between Protestants and Catholics], and departures. Leaving Belfast. And how can you take with you something that, even for this nine-year-old boy, is so clearly part of your DNA – a sense of absolute certainty about who you are and where you belong. This becomes very important advice, to understand that if you were comfortable with who you were within yourself, you bring that into the world.
The family decides to move to England
The scene: After extracting Buddy from a riot at the local supermarket, during which he steals washing powder, Ma gathers the family in the living room and tells them that they are moving to England.
Kenneth Branagh: “This is a moment of truth. We have just witnessed the ability of human beings to be caught up in the fervor of energy, which takes away rational thought and replaces it with feeling that Nine-Year-Old Runs Through Broken Window To Steal Soap It Will Lead A Mother To Try To Explain ‘You Shall Not Steal’ By Bringing Her Child Back Into The Most Dangerous Situation [Ma makes Buddy return the soap to the supermarket, which is still being violently looted].
“We put the three boys [Buddy, his father and brother Will, played by Lewis McAskie] together on the sofa, frankly looking like three children, including dad. And mom is the one who’s going to have to take responsibility for articulating and owning what they’re going to do.
“In terms of acting, something people have said to me in the past is, ‘If you’re going to do something big, find a place on stage you haven’t been to before. Don’t be where other important events happened. So there we climb exceptionally high enough for our close-up on Caitriona. We do this for a number of reasons, in part to let the audience know intuitively that there’s something different about it. It also allows us, in a depth shot, to look all the way through the dining room, the kitchen, the backyard and beyond, in which there is an indifferent world with people doing their own thing. But here, there is this close-up of this woman facing her family in peace.
“There is a quiet strength and intelligence that Caitriona brings to this scene. There is an acknowledgment of disappointment in itself, that she could have brought the children to this state of danger. Even as she speaks, she tries to figure out what her decision is.
“I said to Caitriona, ‘You don’t know until you finish what you’re going to say. It’s a scene where that decision has to happen to you, you have to live that moment. It’s an eye opener, and also very painful to understand that some of what she thought was important before doesn’t matter anymore, while understanding that it will be a way for her to let go [of Belfast]it will cost him to make this sacrifice.
The celebration after the funeral
The scene: After the family bury Pop, they celebrate his life with a raucous party in which Pa serenades Ma with a heartfelt rendition of Love Affair’s “Everlasting Love” – as Buddy looks on rapturously.
Kenneth Branagh: “This feeling of liberation is necessary. In my case, my own father slept on the couch for five nights next to my grandfather’s open casket. People came in everyday with drinks and there was a bit of gallows humor needed. Then, after the grief, there is a need to get rid of it, to come back to life through music, dance, physical movement. As much joy as you can dig. Madness, yes. Absurdity. Pretend to be the movie star couple in the middle of the room.
“While we see all that glamour, there’s also a picture with two jars of pickled eggs. That’s what I remember [from my childhood]; that’s what catering was, because of limited funds. Because they were so strong, it took a long time for them to be eaten. There had never been a pickled egg rush, and it looked like you had made an effort!
“Everyone is letting their hair down, letting tears of joy flow. Cinematically, we wanted the anthemic joy of that great 1960s song from Love Affair with Jamie’s wholehearted commitment to giving it our all with lyrics that are very relevant to this stage of history – offering love to a a woman of significant and impressive character. It is a message of hope.