Even Kenneth Branagh Doesn’t Quite Know How He Got From Belfast to Here

Kenneth Branagh on the set of Belfast. Photo: Rob Youngson/B) 2021 Focus Features, LLC.

With the idea of the future losing much of its luster, many of us spent the COVID era thinking about the past. But few took it as far as Kenneth Branagh, who used his sudden downtime to write and direct a black-and-white autobiographical drama. Branagh’s Belfast follows a cherubic 9-year-old named Buddy (Jude Hill) whose childhood is upended by the coming of the Troubles. Despite the creeping sectarian violence, the film is grounded in Branagh’s youthful memories of the city: neighborhood banter, schoolyard crushes, enough Van Morrison songs to soundtrack an anti-lockdown protest. “There is something genuinely bold in giving a movie about Belfast in 1969 the warm glow of the everyday,” wrote our critic Bilge Ebiri. “It reminds us that life goes on.”

Belfast premiered to an enthusiastic reception at the Telluride Film Festival and shortly thereafter won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, catapulting the film into the Oscar conversation. That was exciting news not just for Branagh but also for my father’s family, a collection of siblings around the director’s age who grew up in Derry and were thrilled that Northern Ireland was getting the Hollywood spotlight. As Branagh made the awards-season rounds, I spoke to him on Zoom about fry-ups, his artistic evolution, and — as my aunts and uncles begged me to — how he lost his Belfast accent.

It might be different in the U.K., but in terms of projects that make it to the States, Belfast is the rare movie about the Northern Irish Protestant community. I have my own theories about why that is, but I’m curious about why you think that is.
What are your theories just by the by?

There’s two parts. The first is that, in terms of things made for the U.S., most Irish Americans are Catholic, and so stories from the Catholic perspective are naturally more appealing to the American audience. And the second — without getting into specific choices made by specific Irish Republicans — is that in general, the Catholic community was more of an underdog than the Protestant community. And thus in those stories, the narrative is a little easier to understand. The moral stakes are more legible.
A perfectly rational theory on both counts. I also think that there is an element of the Northern personality that is expressed, semi-comically in our film, through the preacher, who sets up this rather austere, severe view of life. Protestant ministers really were so fire and brimstone–y that there’s almost an innate suspicion in some Protestant minds of telling stories — that it’s rather indulgent, a bit of frippery. Whereas our job is to joylessly move through life getting ready to hopefully make our way out of purgatory.

Was your preacher in real life that kind of fire-and-brimstone Paisleyite guy?
One-hundred percent. My parents got out of churchgoing as soon as they possibly could, but they were stuck into the ritual of it, so we were sent basically to put money onto the plate. It was very theatrical, very stern. It was always presented in this visceral way, always around the word sulfur. You were going to burn — simple as that.

This is probably not the first time you’ve heard this, but the parents in this film are among the most attractive parents ever put onscreen. When you were a child, did you idealize your parents, turn them into these glamorous, larger-than-life figures?
What they had was this incredible fizz, this passion between them. Since the film was made, I’ve come across a few photos of them in the late ’60s. My mother had a big pair of Gina Lollobrigida glasses — very sort of sexy trexy and glamorous. They didn’t have the money, but she definitely had an innate sense of style. And he was very proud of her sassiness. She was one of 11. Her mother died giving birth to her. To survive in that family, you had to shove, fight, and scream, so she was a firebrand. And, of course, those qualities in people often are very attractive. And Jamie’s dry sense of humor was bang in the center of my own father’s. But ultimately, even I didn’t know quite how photographically zingy the pair of them would be. My wife saw the film and said, “Jesus. Please photograph me like that.”

There are some scenes in the film where you shoot Jamie Dornan like he’s a Socialist Realist hero, this titanic figure who’s twenty feet tall.
In those scenes, I felt like I was writing a western. A picture that I love is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. You’ll recall from the poster, it’s shot from behind him, low, and his hands are on a gun. It was the idea of the kid seeing his dad as a mountain. That’s what he needed to see. He also needed to see a big Belfast sky as well. And then you’ve got Billy Clanton [the film’s Protestant militant] who is a kind of tinpot Hitler sneaking into a power vacuum, becoming Jack Palance from Shane: the raven-haired, implacable villain. Somehow we started to put those images together.

I read your book Beginning and was struck by how many scenes in the film come straight from those memories. But one thing that was different was the portrayal of school. You write about a very Dickensian, very cruel experience, which lines up with things my dad has told me. But the school in this movie is a much more positive environment.
What I wanted to retain about the experience of the school was the obsession with the girl, trying to get further up the class. At one stage, it was in the script. For instance, I got the cane from a headmaster for walking across some flower beds one time. But it just felt like too much. It became a different, almost documentary look. What was key to Buddy is that we all put up with this. It wasn’t like I was coming home going, “I can’t believe I got the cane.” My parents would’ve said, “Are you broken? No? All right, then get on with it.”

Did you ever catch up with the girl in real life?
I never did. I always felt that I just wasn’t good enough for her. And I was absolutely convinced that she basically liked people who could do maths better, and I never could.

Do you think if she saw this movie, she’d recognize herself?
I sometimes wonder. I would like to think. Obviously, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. God willing, they’re all still alive and healthy. But I don’t know. There may be some of this she may not even have understood was coming in such a heartfelt way from me. So she may not remember me.

Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciarán Hinds in Belfast. Photo: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

I asked my aunts and uncles what kind of questions I should ask you, and completely independently, they all wanted to know how and when you lost your Belfast accent.
It was in the two or three years after I came across. We left when I was 9, May of 1970. And by the time I left secondary school in the summer of ’72, it was probably gone. I think it was to do with wanting to disappear. I wanted to just fit in.

It’s funny: When we came across, there was no desire on my parents’ part to keep up with the Joneses. They had no interest in additional social status or anything. They came over, and they did the things that they did back home. My dad played the horses. My mother played bingo. But we were thrown into a very different social class. From working class, we went to lower middle class. And it was a world that didn’t really understand our world.

As we all became a bit more insular, [my accent] kind of rubbed off. There were a couple of years of not even knowing it was happening, then feeling a bit bad about it. So for a while, I was English in school and Irish at home. And then it started happening at home. My parents didn’t comment about it. I think they felt it was natural enough.

When you went back for the Billy plays [a trio of BBC dramas from the early ’80s about a working-class Belfast family that served as Branagh’s first big break], did you find yourself putting it back on again?
No, I didn’t, but it’s interesting. I went back with a friend of mine, the guy who plays the best friend — an excellent actor who’s a policeman now, called Colum Convey. When we got on the plane on the way to Belfast on the Sunday night before the first day of rehearsals, Colum said to me [in a Cockney accent], “Now, listen, Ken. From tomorrow, I’m going to be completely Belfast. All right?” And that’s what he did. The next day, it was like meeting a completely different guy. Whereas I didn’t feel comfortable with that. I had the mickey taken out of me left, right, and center, but I would do the part and then I would step back into the way I sounded. I’ve never been good at doing that totally immersive thing.

I first became aware of you in the ’90s. In the version of you that made its way over to American audiences, you were presented as sort of England incarnate. It wasn’t until later that I learned of your Northern Irish heritage. Were you cognizant of that disparity? And did that ever give you any sort of identity crisis?
I don’t know about an identity crisis, but I was aware of that disparity. This film, in a way, goes back to understanding what infused my storytelling DNA. It’s very much forged by my background. You can tell from this film: How far away could [working-class Belfast] be from doing Shakespeare in English accents? But my drive to do it was partly to say to my parents, “Look, we can enjoy this as well.” You don’t have to have been to Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Princeton. If it speaks to you, it speaks to you.

And yet I think there was an assumption that I was part of what you might call the English elite or that I would have come from one of those places. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that; I’m just saying there were perhaps some assumptions made. I don’t know about identity crises, but all I knew was, God, I couldn’t be what people thought of me: a spoiled posh boy or something. It’s not important enough to try to correct people: “You realize I’ve got proper working-class Belfast credentials here, mate.” But this [film] was a chance to allow the truth that the mix of whatever spawned me as an artist was happening back then.

In the book, you mention that the phenomenon you call “Branagh-bashing” began fairly early on. What do you think it was that made you such an easy target?
I think it was as simple as overexposure in the media. I was absolutely unaware, though people might say, “How could you not be?” We ran a theater company that became a film company, and in doing what I felt was my duty to everybody else involved, I basically spoke to whoever I was pointed at to bang the drum for it. There comes a point where you go, Enough already. I was 27 when I directed Henry V. I was 29 when I got double-nominated as an actor and director in the Academy. For some people, that is incredibly annoying, and they think, Fuck him. As if I was wandering around talking about the cleverness of me when I can assure you I wasn’t. Although, no doubt, I’m sure I was capable of being cocky and arrogant and stupid.

In those early days you were putting yourself on a very ragged schedule: During breaks for one project, you’re writing something, directing something else, rehearsing yet another thing. How long were you able to keep up that pace?
I always had some sense of seizing the day, that you might not have the opportunity again. I had an enormous amount of joy in the work, and I think that always drove me. That kind of crazy schedulizing went through about 2000, when we made Love’s Labour’s Lost. I remember waking up at the Essex House hotel, Central Park South in New York, on the morning when the New York Times review, not good, came out for that film. And it was not alone. I remember thinking, Oh, fuck. That sort of took the wind out of my sails. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, but I’d just been in the boxing ring for quite a long time, and I’d taken quite a few punches. I didn’t feel burnt-out, but I did feel bashed-up. Didn’t consider it catastrophic, but I knew I had to ease up a bit.

Do you still pay attention to reviews, or have you learned to cut yourself off?
I have learned that, but you can’t help but pick up on it. You’ll get that response: “Oh God, I’m so cross with that writer X. Don’t you listen to a word of it.” I don’t know what you’re talking about, but now I know somebody said something appalling. You can’t be too insulated — otherwise, you won’t get feedback. But plugging into the sort of vast plethora of how the thing is spoken about, I resist to the maximum. And to be honest, I do respect the contrary opinion. I’m at a point in my life where I understand you can’t please all the people all the time, and sometimes the ones you don’t please are much more interesting.

Do you have a personal contrary opinion?
I believe that Tottenham Hotspur will win the Premiership this year. I would suggest that is contrary to most people’s opinions.

My uncle Thomas is also a Spurs fan. Why are there so many of you in Belfast?
Danny Blanchflower. He was a Northern Irishman who won the Footballer of the Year title in ’57 and ’61. In ’61, he captained the Tottenham Hotspur double-winning side. They’ve never done it since. He also captained the Northern Irish team to the last eight of the 1958 World Cup. He was the one guy in the history of the program This Is Your Life — where a celebrity is ambushed and all the people in their life come into the studio — who just refused to do it. That was how singular he was, Danny Blanchflower. There’s something about that character that is very Northern Irish. Some would call it belligerence; some would call it strong-minded and sort of inspiring. He had a strong position and held it even though it might be exceptional.

In early reviews, you were spoken of as an actor who also directed. At what point did you feel as if your filmmaking talent reached the level of your acting talent?
I didn’t think about my acting talent in any sort of particular high pitch or anything — simply that that’s what I did. I think it’s probably taken till now, to be honest, to begin to understand. This film is partly involved with that. I was surrounded by people who told stories all the time, told jokes, made stuff up. The telling of tales was something inbuilt. Sometimes you performed it, and sometimes you watched other people do it. But the idea that I’d ever do any of this [professionally] was so … I think of that little kid on the pavement reading a Thor comic. If you’d said, “Oh, by the way, 9-year-old, when you’re 50, you’ll be directing Thor, the fourth film in what will become the cinema-dominating universe of the 21st century,” I would’ve thought you’d come from Venus.

You lacked the context to know how a person would even get from there to here.
How do you make films? How do you tell stories? What is directing? What is acting? Work was, You’d be a plumber or a chippy; you worked in a shop; if you’re lucky, insurance company or whatever. Or you went in the army or British Rail. The other stuff wasn’t on our radar.

There’s been some discussion among critics about the wake scene at the end of the film with “Everlasting Love.” The first time I saw it, I just took it completely straight. But I’ve heard other people call it a dream sequence. Is it meant to be ambiguous, or is one of us completely wrong?
I don’t mind if it seems ambiguous. But the truth I was trying to get from it was that the moment after the burial had to be an expression of the opposite of what people had just felt: the dark, joyless, awful grief of losing someone so loved. These were wild nights in the sense of they were frenzied, they were passionate, and they were a release. People would try to make that moment bigger than their lives — a proper piece of closure that is a supernova for the end of this person’s life.

Whose idea was it for Jamie to sing? I’ve noticed he enjoys a musical number in many of his films.
He’s essentially singing alongside the recorded track there and then, but we recorded him afterward, and he has got a terrific voice. As you may know, he sang it live at the L.A. premiere. Ballsy thing to do, but he did a grand job.

Jamie is somebody who really goes for it, and he was ready to dance and sing. Also, it’s a great lyric for that moment in their relationship. What the film talks about is what Noël Coward famously wrote, rather patronizingly: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” I would say that it’s a profound lyric even though it’s in a pop song. But that’s what we were: consumers of what others might call low culture.

You’ve written very movingly about the smells of Belfast. Is there a particular smell that brings you back to your youth?
Well, the sea you smell, or the loch, as it is. My mother used to eat cockles, and we would go to Donaghadee Beach to eat whelk. We’d get them off the rocks; you probably couldn’t do it now. But you get whelks, and you bring them back, and you boil them. Sometimes put vinegar on, sometimes put butter on. My mother used to have this deeply fishy smell.

The movie used to have a whole theme of dodgy food that was left out. The smell of tripe — Jesus Christ. Poached tripe in milk, you’d be tasting it for a month. And the other thing — not so bad but rough to look at — were pig’s trotters. Cooked for hours and hours. You’d try and find a piece of meat in there. It’s an incredible mystery to get a bit of protein out of a pig’s trotter. Fish and ham is what I smell.

There was a lot of family curiosity about food, particularly the ingredients that make a fry-up. They wanted to know if you preferred potato farls or soda bread.
Both. I had an uncle who used to make it this way: He would melt half a pound of white cap lard. Then he used to put the soda bread in, and he’d sort of boil it. And he would press down on the soda bread until it soaked it up. Then he put the potato farls in there, they’d swim around. All the pieces would soak up the fat. He’d take all the bread out, put aside. Then he would melt another half-pound of lard, into which he’d put sausages, black pudding, tomatoes, bacon, mushrooms. It was a beautiful thing to eat, but you really didn’t need to have another one for a decade.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Kenneth Branagh Doesn’t Know How He Got From Belfast to Here