Kenneth Branagh on bringing it back home with his beautiful love letter to Belfast

Kenneth Branagh travels back to his childhood and the start of the Troubles to tell his most personal story yet. He talks to Laura Harding about the emotional experience of making his beautiful semi-autobiographical film Belfast, while stars Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe explain its importance to a post-conflict audience

Jude Hill, pictured left, stars as Buddy and Jamie Dornan stars as Pa in director Kenneth Branagh's Belfast. Picture by PA Photo/Rob Youngson/Focus Features.
Jude Hill, pictured left, stars as Buddy and Jamie Dornan stars as Pa in director Kenneth Branagh's Belfast. Picture by PA Photo/Rob Youngson/Focus Features. Jude Hill, pictured left, stars as Buddy and Jamie Dornan stars as Pa in director Kenneth Branagh's Belfast. Picture by PA Photo/Rob Youngson/Focus Features.

WHEN Kenneth Branagh was a little boy growing up in Tigers Bay in north Belfast, a loyalist mob rioted down his street - Mountcollyer Street - smashing windows and threatening the Catholics who were living peacefully there.

His family, who were Protestants, were unharmed, but the moment was a defining one for the boy who has gone on to become an acclaimed actor and director.

It's a harrowing episode he has recreated for the opening of Belfast, his new semi-autobiographical film which is being spoken of as an Oscar contender.

The family drama follows a little boy called Buddy - played by 11-year-old Jude Hill from Gilford, Co Down - whose family, including parents played by The Tourist's Jamie Dornan and Outlander star Caitríona Balfe, are caught up in the Troubles at the end of the 1960s, sparking his parents' decision to leave Belfast.

"I think that I probably began to realise over the years that the leaving of Belfast was really an event that I couldn't ever escape in its impact," reflects Sir Kenneth, now 61.

"The film really describes 20 seconds where my life changed forever, when a mob came down our street, a neighbourhood that otherwise had been very peaceful and harmonious, where we lived side-by-side with Catholics.

"In what followed - which was the street being completely reconfigured into a fortress - I think a series of things psychologically started to kick in, like they do when when youthful experiences have a big impact, that have been with me ever since.

"I didn't know how such a story could manifest itself in a film, but at the beginning of this lockdown there were so many similar feelings thrown up of being unsettled, of life providing the unknown, and really a desire to reach for all the things that helped you get through it - humour, human connection, your family - and a search for all the coping mechanisms - music, dancing, anything that asserted life and fun and certainty - at a time when things were so very deeply uncertain."

It has taken Branagh some time to realise that day was "a very, very, very... traumatising thing".

"One of the reasons it takes so long is that a big part of the Northern Ireland DNA is that you don't go on about stuff like this," he muses.

"You don't indulge, you don't suggest that your challenges, your struggles, your problems, are any greater than anybody else's.

"So it's taken me a long time to get to the point where I realised that remains the truth, but it doesn't mean that your story doesn't have some kind of value.

"Quite the opposite, because you begin to recognise that other people might benefit from understanding these moments.

"Going back to experience it, in the doing of it, the shooting of it, it wasn't so bad, because so much of that was mechanics. It was afterwards, as you put it all together, and as it started to have its own life, it began to be a cumulatively more emotional experience.

"And it has had me quite quite a bit closer to tears on a day-to-day basis than I might otherwise be. But part of the process was understanding that tears can be helpful."

It was only during the editing process that Sir Kenneth, whose previous directing projects include Thor, Cinderella and Murder On The Orient Express, as well as a string of Shakespeare adaptations, thought about how the film might be received by others who had lived through the early days of the Troubles.

"The film sort of revealed that that's what it was about, and that's what it was for. The weight of sadness across the various incidents, as well as the the tenderness and the hard earned joy, just somehow allowed you to recognise that it was tough for everyone and it was a shared tragedy and the wound is still one that is shared by many people," he says.

"It's important to remember stories like this, lest we forget, because the peace which has to be won every day is hard earned and hard won, and I think many, many people do not want to go back to those days."

While the film was deeply personal for its creator, it was also personal for its stars, many of whom grew up in the midst of the Troubles or felt their painful ripple effects.

"I was born 13 years into a 30-year conflict," says 39-year-old Dornan, "and I've seen the effect that it's had on the place and the people, both during the conflict and the post-conflict society there. It couldn't be more personal really, to be able to tell the story.

"I left at 19, Caitríona left at 18, not to avoid the beginning of a war, but we all did for different reasons, and I understand what that means. And I've also spent 20 years going around the world, telling people I'm from Belfast and seeing all kinds of reactions to just that.

"And I think this film can help to settle some of the ideas that people have about that place and the people in my place, because we get to see it through the eyes of normal family and that's really vital."

Balfe (42), who was born in Dublin and grew up right on the border, outside the Co Monaghan village of Tydavnet, recalls crossing army checkpoints as a young girl.

"The conflict and the weight of everything that was happening was omnipresent," she reflects.

"We used to cross the border weekly, and go through army checkpoints, and all of that, so I think when I first read this script one of the things that impacted upon me the most was just the compassion and the empathy that Ken had for this ordinary working class family who had not asked for this.

"We've seen many, many great films about Northern Ireland and about the Troubles, but I think there's been an absence of films just about the everyday working class family, who sort of got caught up among it.

"I think the enormity of the tragedy is that we allowed this to happen for so long. And I think one of the things in this post-conflict time that we're in is how easily people forget that, and how quickly people are willing to jump on these easy slogans and and put that in jeopardy.

"I think it's a really good time right now to have everyone remember that this is a precarious peace we have, and it's so important and that we need to protect that."

Belfast is in cinemas now.