• Film

A Trip to “Belfast” with Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh’s wistful homage to his childhood in Northern Ireland arrives on the big screen in the form of the semi-autobiographical movie, Belfast. Written and directed by Branagh, the story chronicles the life of a working-class family in the late 1960s in a narrative set against the backdrop of social tumult during the Northern Ireland Conflict.

This is a setting that Branagh knows well. Born in Belfast in 1960, the actor, writer, producer, and director – who has been nominated for four Golden Globes – grew up in Northern Ireland until the age of nine, at which point he moved to England. While the story of Belfast follows a close-knit family with two sons, Branagh himself is the middle of three children – and it was his siblings that he went to for approval as the project moved into production.

The script for Belfast was written rather expeditiously at the start of the pandemic. “I guess the writing process was about eight weeks and 50 years,” Branagh says with a smile. “I’ve wanted to write something about Belfast for a long time, and I made many notes over many decades. The introspection and the silence at the beginning of lockdown sent me back to another lockdown, which was the one that we [his family] experienced at that time.”

The multihyphenate pauses before continuing: “It was one of those things that poured out and then it gathered a momentum of its own. I showed it to my brother and sister, who were the first two people to see the film in its finished form. I really depended on them being happy that we were writing about a version of the events inspired by what our family went through – but then the momentum pushed me to make the film and meet all of these amazing people.”

The acclaimed director/writer is speaking at a Q&A for Belfast at a Film Independent-sponsored screening in Los Angeles. On stage at the Harmony Gold Preview House, Branagh is sitting alongside cast members Caitriona BalfeJamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, and the young newcomer, Jude Hill. These are the “amazing people” to whom he’s referring.


Jamie Dornan and four-time Golden Globe nominee Caitriona Balfe play the parents at the center of the story of Belfast. Given their chemistry on screen, audiences might find it surprising to note that the two actors had never met before they turned up to work on the project – but Dornan gives acknowledgment to Branagh for sensing that the two leads would spark.

“When I got involved, I didn’t know it was going to be Caitriona,” the Fifty Shades of Grey actor reveals. “I’m going to give Ken [Branagh] some of the credit for considering, understanding, and hoping that we’d be a good match together based on meeting us separately – but it was just one of those things where we really hit it off. The first time we met was a dance rehearsal and one way to bring two people who can’t dance very well together is to try and teach them how to dance. I think we bonded pretty quickly over our lack of ability.”

“So much of the relationship was on the page,” adds Balfe, star of the Golden Globe-nominated drama Outlander. “When a movie’s written as well as this, so much of your work is already done – but it was really organic.”

In order to bring the actors together as a family, Kenneth Branagh had a number of tools up his sleeve. “On one of our first days, Ken got Judi [Dench], Ciaran, Jamie and myself together in a room to talk about our past,” recalls Balfe. “Ken is very clever. He asked us questions about our childhood, our parents, and different things in our lives, and I think that broke down barriers very quickly. We all bonded. It was very instantaneous.”

Making a movie in the middle of a pandemic is no easy task. To combat COVID restrictions and make life easier for the filmmakers, the crew constructed an entire Belfast street – complete with homes, stores, and an all-important bus stop – on their extensive set. “There was a certain kind of quiet ritual,” explains Branagh. “The props folk would go in first and then they’d come out of the set. Then the electrics would go in, and then they’d come out. After that, the actors would arrive – but there would be very few people about.”

A smile flickers across Branagh’s face when the conversation turns to the unpredictable weather of the UK. “Whenever the sun did shine in Belfast, we would open the windows and let the air in,” the Wallander actor continues. “However, all of the windows that are open in this film are partly due to airflow and COVID regulations. Any time we could get the windows open, we did. The weather satisfied us in that regard – but everybody had to test every day. Everybody tested for two weeks before they came in, too.”

Shooting under strict COVID constraints swiftly became the new normal for the cast. “Very quickly it becomes a routine, but I think there’s a bonding element that happens because of it,” admits Balfe. “Because there was such a small group of us, including our incredible crew, I think we all got to know each other very well. Plus, I think it was just us and The Batman that were the only two films filming at that time, so it also had a pioneering quality to it.”

“The sense of gratitude and privilege, and the preciousness of being able to do it had an effect on everyone,” adds Branagh. “We gave jobs to about 10 drama students who had their first professional work on Belfast, so that energy coming on to a set was also amazing. As was the energy of 85-year-old Judi Dench, who was thrilled to be back and working. Her late husband, Michael Williams, used to say, ‘The problem with Judi is every day is like Christmas bloody morning!’” 

When it comes to energy, the effervescent quality of newcomer Jude Hill is clear to see when the young actor talks about winning his first major movie role at the age of nine. “Initially, I just sent in a normal self-tape,” he explains at the HFPA-sponsored event. “But as soon as I got a call-back and I found out who would be writing it and directing it, I ran about my house for five minutes. The chance to work with all of these actors has been incredible. I’m very, very lucky.”