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Kenneth Branagh's Belfast seeks to make history and tell it at the same time

The film’s editor Úna Ní Dhonghaile speaks about its long-awaited release.

Jude Hill as Buddy.
Jude Hill as Buddy.
Image: Instagram/BelfastMovie

CASABLANCA, CHICAGO and….Belfast?

Only two films named after cities have won the Oscar for Best Picture but if the hype is to be believed, we could be looking at a third in a couple of month’s time.

Potential pub quiz questions aside, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film has already been picking up awards and looks set to be a contender when the Oscar nominations come out in a few weeks. 

The Branagh in this story is Buddy, played by Jude Hill who was making his film debut as a nine-year-old when filming started in 2020. 

Buddy lives and goes to school in Belfast when the story begins in August 1969, the month The Troubles escalated with violence across the province. 

From a Protestant family on a largely Protestant street, the unremarkable presence of Catholics in Buddy’s life becomes rather more remarkable during an explosive riot that is straight from Branagh’s own story. 

The Catholics on their street are being burnt from the homes by loyalists and the tenor of life is changing whether Buddy’s family accept it or not. 

His Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitríona Balfe) disagree over the best way to stop their two boys being caught up in what’s to come. As parents, they’re also struggling with more familiar concerns. 

With work increasingly hard to come by, Pa spends more and more time on building sites in England and a permanent move for the whole family starts to look like the best option. 

For Irish audiences aware of Branagh, it makes a certain sense that it took 50 years to write a story about essentially escaping your own city. 

The film’s editor is Úna Ní Dhonghaile. She has worked extensively with Branagh and was only finishing one film with him (Death on the Nile) when he presented this script to her in mid-2020. 

“I think he has enough distance, he left when he was nine and he was 59 when he wrote the script,” she tells The Journal.

It’s the place that I think he feels is his home. Obviously England has been his home for a longer time but he has that deep feeling of homeland. It’s where his family are from and all his family stories are Irish. 

The film goes out of its way to avoid talking about the politics involved, perhaps because that’s been done plenty of times before but also because politics don’t mean much to a nine-year-old. 

Instead, we see Buddy fancying the smart girl in his class and brushing up on his maths  in a bid to impress her. His grandad or ‘Pops’ (Ciarán Hinds) is there to advise him, suggesting he call to her door to show he’s interested or even cheat on his times tables if that’s what it takes. 

In a particularly memorable scene, Buddy is sitting in the outhouse in their small garden and looks like the weight of the world is on his shoulders as he ponders his unrequited feelings. 

“If she was a wee bit more stupid like me, we’d be sitting together by now,” he says. 

Pop is there with him, polishing a saddle, and advises that women can be mysterious but they leave no time for self-pity. Granny (Judi Dench) is in the background and laughs off her husband’s romantic efforts. 

Ní Dhonghaile made an award winning film ‘The Invisible Man’ about her own father, Dónal Donnelly who as a young political prisoner escaped from Crumlin Road Prison in pre-Troubles days. As a result, she says she understood what Branagh was trying to say about the injustice of the time.

She describes her father, who was later pardoned, as having the same “humanity, compassion and care” that we see from Pops in the film. 

Dad always talked about that great friendships between Protestants and Catholics. They were neighbours and were working class. At that time, Catholics didn’t have the right to vote for but their Protestant neighbours would equally have wanted to march shoulder-to-shoulder with them to get the vote, to get better housing, better jobs, even for themselves.  I’ve been saying for about 10 years that we should make a film about this time, because my Dad’s contention was that if they had dealt with the civil injustices of the 1940s and 50s, the Troubles might never have happened. I think Ken has sort of shed light on that, the basic compassion and friendship of neighbours.

Source: Focus Features/YouTube

Despite the film being made at such a remove from the events, Ní Dhonghaile says Branagh has specific memories about the sounds of his childhood. 

Sounds like ice-cream vans, ship horns and trains are all in the background throughout the action and give the film a sense of place. Van Morrison is also an ever-present soundtrack to the story, both his famous songs and an original track that opens the film with a colour shot of Belfast in present day. 

The rest of the film is in black and white but it’s punctuated with vibrant colour when the family attend the cinema at several points during the story. 

Ní Dhonghaile describes the film’s young star as “just extraordinary” in what he managed to bring to a role that asked so much. 

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She says for the first few days of filming he couldn’t help but catch the camera’s eye but that Branagh used “rolling takes” to get the best out of him.

This essentially means the cameras keeps rolling and they take “12 or 15 or 20″ tries at one scene without resetting. It’s a method she says was also used by Paddy Breathnach in Rosie, which Ní Dhonghaile edited. 

What’s really great about a director being able to do that, and a child too, is that even if the first few might feel a little bit rehearsed as Ken was nurturing him and encouraging him the performances became more natural and then the child is instinctively working.

PastedImage-27809 Ní Dhonghaíle has won BAFTA and IFTA awards for her film and TV editing. Source: Youtube/IFTA Academy

Important 

The film risks being somewhat twee when you’re approaching the outbreak of a deadly conflict with a degree of sentimentality. It will for example be interesting to see what the reaction is like in Belfast when it’s released this weekend. 

Ní Dhonghaile says there’s “a truthfulness” to the film that she hopes people will respond to.

The first cut of the film was two hours and 20 minutes long, much more than its running time of 97 mins, and Ní Dhonghaile says it was important for them to “not to become sentimental or self-indulgent”.

She adds that the positive reception to the film globally has been very humbling for all involved and that Branagh has heard from people of various backgrounds who recognised their own experiences of having to leave their home through war or economic reasons. 

“For me, this is an important film about healing, and how we can move forward together and have non-denominational schools and children together. There’s a lot of work to be done and inclusion on all sides.”

Belfast is released in cinemas today. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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