Kenneth Branagh: ‘I was English at school and Irish at home. I didn’t want to upset my parents

Although he has quietly pointed this out on numerous occasions, Britain has never quite accepted the fact that Kenneth Branagh is, in a sense, Irish. The multitasking Shakespearean was born and raised in Belfast, and left for England at the age of 10 following the outbreak of the Troubles. That departure, he tells me through Zoom, was “probably the most significant moment of my life”, a cultural and family epochal change that marked him deeply and left him with an obsessive sense of loss.

I’ve always wanted to write about Belfast, ”he says,“ and initially I thought I could do something for my grandparents and their past lives. But in the end, I couldn’t get away from that moment that literally changed the direction of my life, how I would play, where I would live, maybe the career I would have. It was a time of traumatic change that was preceded by this feeling of being completely and totally resolved ”.

Born on December 10, 1960, Kenneth was the second child of working-class Protestants Frances and William Branagh, and grew up in and around Shore Road on a street that was home to both Catholic and Protestant families. In his elegiac film Belfast, that childhood is presented as a happy and almost enchanted life, a period of harmonious calm before the storm of sectarian violence broke out.

“People got along well,” he recalls. “I mean, there were the usual challenges and a lot of things they didn’t like – in those tight communities, people knew too much about your business. The people were very proud and when financial hardship occurred, many people visited the pawn shop. “But, surrounded by parents, grandparents and friends, Branagh’s childhood in Belfast was extraordinarily happy, until the arrival of the trouble.

“I really enjoy sports and I am always fascinated to see people when they are in the beautiful state of being singing: they have technique, talent and they know who they are, they are completely present,” he says. “Before there was a riot in our street, I felt that my life was like this. Life was Danny Blanchflower, Spurs, Catherine [a Catholic girl he had a crush on] and movies. And when someone needed you, 15 people screamed in five streets and you came back like some kind of magnet ”.

In the film, Caitríona Balfe’s “Ma” is horrified when she finds out that her young son Buddy (Jude Hill) is involved in the looting of a supermarket and has him bring what he has stolen to the store. The incident is based on real events.

Point of no return

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“When I got involved in that supermarket looting, it was a real game changer for my mom,” says Branagh. “He was just glowing with anger at the idea that I was going to steal something. But even then, she realized that if it comes to this tone, something has to change. She thought, I can’t be involved in this: madness has overwhelmed us both. “

by Branagh Belfast, with Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, is full of colorful minor characters that enrich the story and give it truthfulness. Like the biblical minister who urges young Buddy and his family not to stray from the right path. “I think the church was perhaps my first introduction to show business,” says Branagh wryly. “I mean this guy would really give everything, but he needed a smile even for the old ladies.”

The film is witty about how Buddy understands the distinctions between his own religion and the more exotic, continental alternative to Catholicism. “Frankly,” says Branagh, “my understanding of the Catholic religion remains as imprecise as it was then, and as sophisticated as my mother’s – ‘they get a lot of water and then they’re fine’ kind of thing. But I think anyone who went to church, from whichever side you were, thought he was making a bad deal.

“My friend Patrick Doyle, who often writes the music for my films, comes from a large Catholic family and we often compare notes on what is most powerful, Catholic or Protestant guilt, and we think he’s absolutely head to. head”.

Films shot in black and white are difficult to finance, more difficult to market. Branagh uses sharp, monotonous photography to convey the past and a sense of security as well, but occasionally there are small reflections of color, like when Buddy’s grandmother is at the cinema with him and a crimson flash flares up in her glasses.


Sense of Loss: Lewis McAskie, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill in Belfast. Photo by Rob Youngson / Focus functions

“Well, black and white adds a poetic dimension and convinces you that you are looking to the past. Gives the viewer more time at times; it is as if the color describes the faces, while the black and white go somehow inside. But the color was how the stories I was describing always came to mind, almost like Sherbet’s touches.

Explosions of color came thanks to family visits to the cinema.

“I’ve seen a lot of my movies at the Capitol, right on Antrim Road, just across from Alexandra Park. I watched Yellow submarine there, a thrilling movie; and God only knows what curious feelings were running through my mind when I saw Raquel Welch enter One million years BC. But seeing those great 1960s Technicolor films in an often gray and rainy Belfast, these bursts of color were truly moving. “

In a film full of beautiful performances, Hinds’ portrayal of Buddy’s wise and charismatic grandfather stands out. “Ciarán responded very positively and instantly to the script,” says Branagh, “and I mean he was born and raised less than a mile from where I lived, so he absolutely knew and understood this world. He’s charismatic, but he also has that kind of gravity, he has the sparkle and he has a great soul as an actor. It was very nice to see him work ”.

Buddy is particularly attached to his grandparents, but his grandfather has a bad cough and their welcoming world is about to be rocked by political and social breakdown.

Not long after that revolt that so marked young Branagh, his parents made the fateful decision to leave Belfast for a new life in Reading. In the film, Buddy is traumatized by the very idea of ​​leaving the narrow streets and familiar faces of his old neighborhood, and refuses to move. That emotion, Branagh tells me, is not an exaggeration.

“It was certainly terrible,” she recalls. “I just remember crying out loud when we were finally told we were leaving.

“It was an isolating experience, the Troubles were on the news every night, we were in a place where a lot of service staff families lived, it made us a unit and then, as individuals within the unit, we retired. completely.

“From being a very happy and sociable child, I have become very isolated. I think my mom got very depressed and my dad did his best. My brother hugged him a little more, but for all of us it was very difficult. “

Living in disguise

Kids hate getting noticed and young Kenneth grieved for his accent in Reading. “Sometimes people have had a hard time understanding us and, for me, sticking out has become cardinal sin. You just had to find a way to disappear, because I felt I had no other real support network – everyone else in our family was working hard to survive themselves, so I think as soon as you could, you shaved the edges off the accent. .

“It was a survival thing, a coping thing. For a while there, for two or three years I think, I was English at school and Irish at home, because I didn’t want to upset my parents, abandoning my mother tongue so to speak.

“All of this was not a very comfortable feeling because, even then, with a limited ability to understand it, you are aware that you are essentially living in disguise.”


From left, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie and Jamie Dornan in the film Belfast by director Kenneth Branagh. Photo by Rob Youngson / Focus functions

All these years later, that family trauma has morphed into a truly moving and hugely successful work of art, the best Branagh movie, in my opinion. Last weekend, Belfast won Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes and is expected to feature heavily in Oscar nominations. Did the making of this film, I wonder, give him a sense of peace about his past?

“Ask me after we screened this film at the Belfast Film Festival,” he laughs. He did this shortly after we spoke and the film went very well. “Frankly, the two places where I think we will get what we would call the strongest reaction are likely to be Belfast and Dublin. Certainly the appearance of the film throughout Ireland is very important to me, and of course it is critically so in Belfast.

“But I always felt that the film had to be so much more than just reconciling myself with a certain period of my life, it had more to do with recognition and more to do with honoring your parents and honoring that experience. . “

I ask him if, after all this time, when someone asks him where he comes from, he immediately thinks Belfast?

“Well, I’ve said that for many, many years, and people… it’s like they don’t hear it, or they don’t understand it. But yeah, it’s a bit of a cliché that remark about how you can take the boy out of Belfast but you can’t take the Belfast out of the boy, but in my case I think I know it’s so categorically true. I’m from Belfast and I’m very happy to be ”.

“Belfast” comes out nationwide on January 21st

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