When Kenneth Branagh sat down to write Belfast , loosely based on his experiences growing up during a time of sectarian violence in the Northern Ireland capital, his first worry was whether it would speak to more than an audience of one.
“It needed to be more than merely personally cathartic or personally helpful,” he says. “It needed to feel like there was something that might be of interest to other people, might be something you could recognize or empathize with.”
I’m speaking to Branagh and actor Jamie Dornan at the Toronto International Film Festival, the morning after a premiere at Roy Thomson Hall that had the audience on its feet and the writer/director in tears. Four days later, Belfast would be named the People’s Choice at the festival, an accolade that for the past 10 years has been followed by an Oscar nomination for best picture, and sometimes a win. So yes, other people were indeed interested.
Belfast takes place in a small corner of the city in late 1969. Branagh would have been nine at the time, the same age as the film’s protagonist, Buddy (Jude Hill). Dornan stars as Buddy’s father, only ever known as Pa. Any pressure in playing what amounts to Branagh’s dad?
“I feel like there probably could have been and definitely should have been pressure,” Dornan says with a laugh. “But … I never felt more at ease on a set in my life. I really did feel that I’d been given the confidence and reassurance that I was the right person to be telling that part of the story. I felt very honoured to be in that position.”
He adds: “If you’re not slightly terrified walking onto the set every day you probably shouldn’t be doing it. There’s definitely a fear that comes with exposure like that, and putting yourself out there. Assigning something to celluloid forever is a terrifying thing.”
Branagh built the sets for Belfast in a large open space at the end of a small airport in Hampshire, England, and filled out Buddy’s family with Caitriona Balfe as Ma, and Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench as Pop and Granny, Pa’s parents. The director is happy with the look of it, because it matches what he remembers as a child, right down to a scene of Hinds sitting on the toilet of an outhouse amid a mess of clutter, drinking tea.
“That backyard, my granddad’s backyard, was just like that,” Branagh says. “As my dad used to refer to his father, he said, ‘He’s a bit of a tinker. He did a bit of everything.’ All of it would end up like these weird pieces of reclaimed stuff, pipes and wires and things in that backyard. He was always making things. I’d often cut myself in there. Very dangerous.”
He adds: “And because they’re tiny houses, the men’s ‘smoking room’ as it were became out the back. The only way to get any chance of not being heard by women with very sharp ears was to open the door on the outside loo and sit there with a cup of tea. ‘Shall we go to the lounge?’ And you’d go to this Aladdin’s cave of tinkering nonsense.”
Branagh moved with his family to Reading, England, when he was nine, to escape the Troubles. He now speaks in “received pronunciation,” a kind of neutral English accent. But when he speaks about Belfast , the old Irish brogue comes back. I ask if it’s true that he adopted an English accent as a child to avoid bullying. He says it’s more complicated.
“When we came across it probably took three years for my accent to change,” he says. “It was really to do with disappearing. Because frankly I had just lost the sense of identity. Back there, back home, you couldn’t get lost, you never had to think about any of that stuff. And I think that sort of burden of worry meant that in the end I just wanted to disappear, so that meant sounding like anybody else and not sticking out. Just blend in.”
He adds: “It began the sort of life of disguise that is being an actor that I’ve spent the last 50 years doing.” In addition to his directing career, Branagh has a long history of acting in film — he was in last year’s Tenet — and an even longer history on the stage.
He’s adamant that you can take the boy out of Belfast, but you can’t take Belfast out of the boy. “One way or another, I’m still that person,” he says. “And I’m rather happy that I’m still that person. I’ve gone on a long journey of not appearing to the world to be that person. And that’s what I found quite poignant and necessary about the story for me, and it’s what got me quite emotional last night. You definitely gave something up. There was a sacrifice for parents, and for us, amazing advantages. We didn’t get caught up in that conflict and we were safe, but there were other spiritual costs.”
Dornan, like many of the cast, also hails from Belfast, and he knows something of walking that tightrope of religion, nationality, identity, politics and potential violence.
“I was born in 1982 right into the middle of the conflict and it didn’t end – I’m not sure it’s totally ended if we’re honest, there’s still massive segregation and sectarianism and division in that part of the world — but the Good Friday agreement came in when I was 16 years old. So the first 16 years of my life I lived in a conflict zone I guess. So it’s something that I’ve worn and I’ll continue to wear my whole life.”
He has previously said in interviews that he identifies as Irish, which opens its own can of worms.
“There’s no place in the world where identity is so confused than in the North of Ireland,” he says. “You can have people from the same post code within a hundred feet of each other who all identify three different ways. On of them may identify as Irish, another as Northern Irish, the other as British, and they all live on the same street.”
Nomenclature adds to the confusion. In addition to the independent Republic of Ireland, which covers most of the island of Ireland and is still part of the European Union, you have Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but technically not part of Britain, since that refers only to the island of England, Wales and Scotland.
“I can’t say I’m U.K.-ish — that’s not a word — but I’m not British because we’re not part of Britain. It’s absurd. Thank God I wasn’t good enough at sport to represent, well, whoever. I’m glad I don’t have to stand there with a flag hoisted up behind me.”
Neither does Branagh. And fortunately for him, an Oscar doesn’t list your nationality.
Belfast is now playing in cinemas.