Sir Kenneth Branagh speaks about his semi-autobiographical Belfast, growing up feeling lonely, and why the film strikes a chord for a wider audience
Sir Kenneth Branagh’s name is so synonymous with showbiz that it is hard to imagine him working in any other field.
And yet, like many sons of Belfast tradesmen, he might have followed his father into joinery — had he been able to saw a piece of wood.
As it transpired, carpentry’s loss was acting’s gain. His ‘incompetence’ ruled out a career in woodwork and a childhood obsession with movies evolved into a lifelong association with the worlds of stage and screen. This passion was ignited as a young lad growing up in north Belfast in the mid to late 1960s, when outings to the Capitol Cinema with his family were the highlight of his week.
Given his parents’ shared interest in films, he knew of local actors like Colin Blakely, Joseph Tomelty, Jimmy Ellis, Stephen Rea and Stephen Boyd. But the Belfast of Branagh’s childhood was a vastly different landscape to what it is now, with its massive, multi-million-pound film and television industry. Opportunities for youngsters hoping to get their big break were few and far between. It’s highly likely, of course, that Branagh would have found a way, irrespective of location. But he was never put to that test. At nine years of age, he moved to Reading with his family at the outbreak of the Troubles and new doors opened to him. One wonders how his life might have panned out had he stayed in Belfast. Would he be a world-famous actor, writer and director now?
“I don’t know,” says Branagh, as we sit down to discuss his upcoming film, Belfast.
“My parents were very aware of an actor they saw at the Mariner’s Hall in Belfast, a fella called Colin Blakely, who ended up being a very well-known actor in the UK and whom I admired very much.
“I’d think I’d heard of Stephen Rea, and I knew that I liked the sound of him, and I knew a little bit about the actor we see in the film; the late, great Johnny Sessions plays him, the late, great Joseph Tomelty.
“Maybe I would’ve got intrigued by that but to be honest I don’t know. I would’ve gone and worked for my dad, but I just didn’t have the practical skills, which was always a disappointment to him.
“I knew he could do anything with a piece of wood, and I could not. To make my father laugh, the simplest thing to do was to show him me trying to saw a piece of wood. He used to have tears rolling down his face because I was completely and utterly hopeless.
“My impractical incompetence was something that always gave him great pleasure, but it certainly meant I didn’t have a career as a joiner, so I don’t know how it would have gone.”
What he does know for sure is that he never wanted to leave Belfast. His entire world began and ended in the streets around Mountcollyer in working class Tiger’s Bay. There was a certainty to his life as he walked the same route to Grove Primary School each day, calling in with his grandparents for lunch because the canteen food didn’t appeal, or cutting through Alexandra Park to reach the Capitol on Antrim Road. The heroes of the films he watched infiltrated his dreams. American TV shows and movies transported him to exciting places where gun-toting town marshalls faced down the bad guys. The young Branagh was happy and safe.
But as the 1960s drew to a close, simmering sectarian tensions and social discontent threatened to disrupt his boyhood world. He still recalls the sound of a loyalist mob marauding though his street, demanding that Catholic neighbours leave.
It was partly for this reason and partly because Branagh’s dad was offered a good economic opportunity across the water, that his parents took the decision to pack up and leave. This cataclysmic shift — the build up to it and the impact — is at the core of his “most personal film to date”.
Lockdown gave him the time and space to reflect on that move and to go back and “shake the hand” of his younger self and reassure him that everything would work out fine. Through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy, superbly played by Gilford schoolboy Jude Hill, we see how Branagh’s innocence was shattered and how his heart was as well.
“I know I didn’t want to leave,” he reiterates.
In the movie Belfast, shot mainly in black and white by Branagh’s regular director of photography, Haris Zambarloukos, Buddy’s family life centres around his Pa, (Jamie Dornan) his Ma, (Caitríona Balfe), grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Dame Judi Dench) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie). In the street where he lives, everyone knows him.
It was much like that for the young Branagh, so uprooting and moving to Reading to start a new life, without the physical presence of his beloved grandparents, must have been a daunting prospect. Branagh admits that it was. In his part of Belfast, he was “related to half the city and knew the other half”, so it was impossible to get lost. In Reading, that sense of belonging was no longer there, and he felt like an ‘outsider’. But more than that, he felt “lonely” — something which he thinks permeated his whole family.
“We were a much more isolated unit, and then my mother had my sister,” he explains of his early days in Reading.
“She was pregnant with my sister whom she had almost immediately on arrival in England. I think she had post-natal depression and we were all very separate. We just didn’t have that extra support. We didn’t have other people to speak to; we didn’t have the shared experiences.
“That’s just the way it was, and we didn’t have that sense of what we’d grown up with; that it takes a village to raise a child.”
In terms of social status, the Branaghs had moved up too, but finding themselves suddenly in a lower middle-class situation was “meaningless” to them.
“My parents never had any interest in it,” says Branagh.
“My father still went to the horses and pub and my mother played bingo. There was no interest in keeping up with the Joneses, so we didn’t find a way to join in.
“Life was punctuated by the times when either we could get back or the family would come over.
“We were protected, we were safe, we were out of the way of the violence, or potential violence, but I think the simple fact is we were all, in our separate ways, lonely.”
Branagh can’t recall ever have been singled out or bullied because of his heritage but at a time when British soldiers were being deployed to Northern Ireland, he learned to keep quiet.
“My feeling then was just to disappear, don’t stand up, keep your head down, so it was a very separate experience,” he says.
“I didn’t particularly get picked on for being Irish. But we were in a place where there were a lot of people who had fathers and brothers in the army so in the end you naturally kept your mouth shut a bit.”
At his English school, Irish history wasn’t on the curriculum. Branagh says he believes history is an important subject and should be taught in a “balanced way”. Education was on the agenda at the star-studded Irish premiere of Belfast at the Waterfront Hall in November, when Dornan made a passionate speech in support of integrated education. The actor told the audience that night that he had attended an integrated school and that the low percentage of integrated schools in Northern Ireland (5%) needed to be higher. Branagh too supports the campaign.
“I think it is important that people are aware of background and history,” he says.
“Of course, it’s always a question of how it’s taught and that can be a thorny issue when it comes to these kinds of things.
“It was such a defining and enveloping issue for that part of the world and of course it wasn’t just about the north of Ireland. Its impact spread across the rest of the island and out into the world, so I think it’s a very important subject.
“We weren’t exposed to anything about that in my secondary school education in England, and I think there is a deal of ignorance about it.
“Knowledge is power and so (it must be) well taught in a balanced way, whatever that is...
“But I do think it’s important as I think integrated education is as well, which is one way of beginning that process in a practical, engaged way from a much earlier age.”
On leaving secondary school, Branagh trained at the world-famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London and the pursuit of an acting career, with a particular penchant for Shakespeare, rubbed the edges off his Belfast accent. He may speak with a more refined RP accent these days, but he still does a mean Belfast one (more of that later).
Speaking of accents, the Belfast brogue hit the headlines last September, following the film’s world premiere at Telluride in Colorado. Belfast was largely praised as a triumph although one critic noted that Branagh’s move to Reading at nine years of age had ‘spared’ him the accent.
While writers on this side of the pond had plenty to say on the subject, Branagh dismisses it all as “nonsense”. Indeed, he points out, one of the most rewarding experiences for him in making Belfast has been witnessing its universal appeal.
“If Hollywood had a problem with this (the accent), they’d have been onto us like a ton of bricks as soon as they thought that,” he says.
“But there’s never been a problem and I’m very proud of that as well; the curious paradox of that being that I sound like I sound now.
“But I’m very proud of the accent as it exists in that film. It’s uninterfered with, and the world has no issue at all. Why should they?”
Throughout his illustrious career, the 61-year-old has received five Academy Award nominations across different categories — actor, director (Henry V), supporting actor (My Week with Marilyn), adapted screenplay (Hamlet) and live action short (Swan Song). Should he add best picture and original screenplay to his tally when the Oscar nominations are unveiled next month, Branagh would make history as the first person to pick up nominations in seven individual categories. There’s a huge Oscar buzz around Belfast and since Telluride, it’s been garnering five-star reviews, winning numerous gongs and receiving Golden Globe and Critics Choice nods. Not a bad haul for the fella from Tiger’s Bay.
But Branagh says he’s not putting himself under pressure and that he already feels Belfast has exceeded all expectations.
“There’s a fantastic crop of films out there this year, really excellent ones and so we are lucky to be in amongst them,” he says.
“Any kind of small victory for any film is a victory for every film because, you know, people are worried.
“It’s difficult to get them to come and see films in cinemas, which is what we’d love, and in an ideal world this is where they would see this film because this is where it lives even more resonantly on the big screen.
“As far as our concern, this film has already punched so far above its weight and everything north of about six months ago frankly is gravy.
“Obviously we’re thrilled, absolutely thrilled but I don’t think there is any reason to feel any pressure. There are so many brilliant films out there and a ton of them deserve all the hosannas in the world.
“If some of them come our way, the movie gods will sort that out, but we won’t be worried about it. We’ll stay grateful and happy that we’re in the conversation.”
For Branagh and his stars, the icing on the cake was the audience’s reaction at the Waterfront Hall on the opening night of the Belfast Film Festival. A lengthy and loud standing ovation followed the film’s screening and there were tears in the aisles and on the stage, where actors and Branagh took part in a Q&A session, hosted by Co Down’s Patrick Kielty.
“I don’t want to be all soft and fuzzy and sentimental about it, but I will be and say that the night we had in Belfast was a big blessing for this film. It meant a lot to us and so anything else is a bonus.”
Branagh’s elder brother and younger sister were there, as were close relatives of Dornan’s, Hind’s, Hill’s and McAskie’s. It was one of the best nights in Branagh’s life, he says, and was very much a family affair for the Belfast team.
For the people of Belfast, Branagh says he wanted to get across a certain quality that he believes they share — an ability to see light in the middle of “appallingly dark moments” and that sense of spirit he observed growing up.
“That was something I think people recognised and were glad of,” says Branagh.
“I think they were also glad to see the modern city at the beginning and the end of the film, to see how far the place has come and what a really miraculous achievement that has been, as fragile as we know these things can be.
“It was a beautiful night. Patrick Kielty did an absolutely fantastic job. He was sensitive, funny, sensitive to tone, but it was a hell of an audience.
“My God, they were generous and myself and Dornan were in ribbons the whole night.”
While the film tells of one family reluctantly leaving Belfast to begin a new life, Branagh believes it strikes a chord with a wider audience because at its heart, it is a migrant story. He’s been approached by Iranians, Nigerians and Haitians, eager to share their own experiences and to tell him how they can relate. There’s also a common identification with that moment when innocence is lost forever.
“I think especially when they see a young person, in whatever form, deal with loss, whether it’s the loss of identity, whether it’s the loss of family, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, you know human beings, we find it difficult to deal with change,” he muses.
“And yet it’s absolutely part and parcel of our everyday life.
“When you see that understanding dawning on the face of a young person, particularly one played in this case so beautifully by Jude Hill, I think it’s very effecting and I think a lot of people go straight back to their own childhoods.
“That’s what I hear regularly from people who see the film and in the best possible way, they often feel as though they’ve been given some kind of look at Belfast that maybe they hadn’t seen before in this particular way.
“They seem to see straight past all that. For them it’s a universal story and that’s been a surprise and a real delight as well.”
Much has been made of the chemistry of the ensemble cast and the bonding on set, despite the shoot having taken place during the Covid pandemic. Branagh says it’s been a joy to work with such an appreciative cast and to attend film festivals with them throughout the world.
The film’s young star might be picking up best newcomer gongs, but according to Branagh, he’s still very much an 11-year-old boy who becomes starstruck in the presence of his heroes.
Branagh tells a funny story about a recent dinner in a restaurant in Paris, when the normally exuberant Hill was left tongue-tied.
“I’m sitting opposite him, and he suddenly starts to blush,” recalls Branagh, “so I asked him what was wrong.”
In a perfect Belfast accent Branagh re-enacts the moment in Hill’s words.
“Look over there, over there. The man with Jamie. It’s Spiderman! It’s Tom Holland. I’m going to cry.”
Branagh continues with his story, describing how Dornan brought his Hollywood superstar friend over to the table to meet the stunned Hill.
“He got so emotional; God bless him, so I was thrilled to see that,” laughs Branagh.
“There’s nothing jaded about 11-year-old Jude Hill, if you thought he was suddenly going to get a swell head. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t look. He was so embarrassed.
“Tom Holland comes over and goes ‘Hello buddy. What’s your name?’ Jude couldn’t speak, he could not speak. He was completely and utterly charmed.”
While the rest of the cast looked on, Holland chatted to Hill and explained that his own parents came from Tipperary.
“He was just like any other 11-year-old who really couldn’t believe there was a world in which he could meet Spiderman and where Spiderman could ask him where he came from,” says Branagh.
“Suddenly the crazy world of showbiz has Jude Hill and Tom Holland talking about Tipperary in a restaurant in Paris while we’re all on this kind of charabang.
“It was such a memorable moment.”
Belfast, Cert 12A, is in cinemas January 20
To be in with a chance to win one of 50 pairs of tickets to see Belfast at Movie House Cityside on January 20, visit www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/belfastmovie. Entries close Sunday, January 16. T&Cs apply.