Actor-director Sir Kenneth Branagh’s new film centers around a working-class North Belfast family in the 1960s.
Branagh wrote and directed "Belfast," which was inspired by his own childhood. Everyone in the neighborhood knows 9-year-old Buddy and looks out for him. But his idyllic world is shattered when a marauding mob of angry Protestants comes to his street looking for the minority Catholics, setting off car bombs and smashing windows. Buddy’s parents have to decide whether to stay or leave for England.
“It was a way of looking back at a moment in my childhood,” he says, “and the story of trying to understand what followed from a great moment of change was what the film became about.”
This period of time — known as the Troubles — lasted for 30 years. Northern Ireland had been carved out of Ireland by Britain. Unionists and Loyalists, mostly Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the U.K. Irish nationalists, Republicans who were mostly Catholic, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. and join a united Ireland.
Branagh remembers when the streets of Belfast exploded on Aug. 15, 1969. He remembers hearing what sounded like the swarms of bumblebees down the street but turned out to be a rioting mob.
“They picked up the paving stones. Those paving stones a few hours later became barricades, and the world was literally turned upside down,” he says. “Certainly my life was never the same again.”
The film opens in a black and white memory of 9-year-old Buddy, played by Jude Hill, skipping through the neighborhood as other children run in and out of houses. The houses are all on top of each other and connected.
Branagh recalls that when one mother needed to call her kid in for tea, she would yell their name and the neighbors would repeat it like a telegraph until the child heard it. The neighborhood exemplified the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” he says.
When the mob came through to mark the houses of Catholics on the street and begin pressuring those families to leave, the chaos uprooted the village, he says. At age 9, Branagh couldn’t understand why his friends and neighbors were suddenly gone.
Branagh’s family went to church and felt a “nominal allegiance” to their Protestant faith, he says. His parents believed all people were equal regardless of their religion.
“But there was a sense that this was less out of a sort of religious conviction and more out of adherence to a longstanding sort of social tradition,” he says, “which was separate from our Catholic neighbors who went to a different church.”
The events of 1969 — which caused the greatest displacement of people in a European city since World War II — disturbed and alarmed everyone, he says.
Ultimately, Branagh’s family decided to leave the city. In the film, Buddy’s parents are portrayed by Caitriona Balfe and James Dornan, who both hail from the area.
“[Balfe and Dornan] convey in the picture, I would say, the sort of passionate sizzle that I witnessed in my parents,” Branagh says. “They had a kind of movie star lust for life.”
Despite being Protestant, the volatile, violent situation put Branagh’s family in danger along with everyone else in the city. In the film, the difference in the narrative in the neighborhood versus on TV confuses Buddy.
Buddy and his brother study American films “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Later in the movie, a serious confrontation between their father and some of the rioters feels like a stand-off in an old western town.
“There was a sense in me that at that time in Belfast — before all of this kicked off — I had a sense of knowing who I was and knowing how I fitted into the world,” Branagh says. “When that was ruptured, I think that what began then was in a way a sort of life of disguise.”
Branagh turned to the world of the arts to find new forms of extended family: “Belfast” is his 19th feature film, and many people in it were also in his first one. He thrives as part of an extended creative family, something he traces back to growing up in Belfast.
When Here & Now host Robin Young saw the film in a theater, a Haitian security guard in the room sobbed at the end alongside her. After a screening at the London Film Festival, an Iranian filmmaker and a Nigerian man both said to Branagh that the film told their story.
“In that way that allows us in the sharing of stories to let people understand that we are not alone,” he says, “I'm very touched that it's reaching way beyond the North of Ireland.”
This segment aired on November 10, 2021.