Toronto Film Festival
When the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into quarantine in March 2020, filmmaker Kenneth Branagh found himself inspired to tell the story of a different type of lockdown that he
When the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into quarantine in March 2020, filmmaker Kenneth Branagh found himself inspired to tell the story of a different type of lockdown that he experienced growing up in Belfast.
“It seemed to bring to the surface something that I’d been thinking about ever since the events of this story happened 50 years ago,” Branagh said, reflecting on the origins of the loosely autobiographical film in conversation with star Jamie Dornan at Variety’s TIFF Studio presented by Canada Goose.
“A lockdown that went from a very stable, happy settled life where one working class family in one street, one part of town, your neighborhood … and, in a single day, everything literally from the ground underneath your feet turned upside down, and all that the uncertainty that followed that ignited [this story], I think, when our own experience of a lockdown kicked in.”
And, as it turns out, the lockdown period had been inspiring for Dornan as well.
“I left Belfast when I was 19, and I think about it all the time, my family’s still there,” Dornan said, sharing that he was working on his own script about his Northern Ireland home before Branagh sent him “Belfast.”
“Belfast” follows a nine-year old boy named Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill, who won the role over more than 300 young actors) whose life changes overnight when the civil conflict, known as The Troubles, breaks out in the late 1960s. Dornan immediately responded to the role of Pa — a working-class father of two, who spends weeks away from his family earning a living in England.
“I felt that I knew Pa, I know men like that. My father was a man like that, his father before him was a man like that,” Dornan explained. “Even before the conflict began, there’s something about the people in Belfast; they’ve always been against it a wee bit. It’s never been a particularly easy place to live. Since 1920, basically there’s a certain divide that’s caused friction.”
And as a father of three himself, Dornan said he could now recognize the moves that he’d make for the sake of his family if everything changed and “there was danger outside the door where there used to be peace.” More than anything, though, Dornan wanted to pay tribute to his home. “I will my whole career try to, given the opportunity, tell stories from that part of the world because it’s important to me,” the actor said.
Likewise, Branagh filled the ensemble cast with actors who felt that similar “pull of home,” as he describes it. In addition to Dornan, the filmmaker nabbed Caitríona Balfe, Colin Morgan, Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds (who is just a few blocks away Branagh in Belfast) to round out Buddy’s family.
“Even if half the nation travels away from it as a matter of course, the pull of home, and the certainty of home is clear, and then we obviously needed at the center of it, a little boy who was from there and who could could be as open, present, and alive too, so that you saw the story unfolding through his eyes.”
And unfolding before the filmmaker’s eyes was his own childhood, with the production team re-creating the street he grew up on. Branagh said of stepping on set, “Within about five minutes on any given day, that’s where I’ve absolutely felt I was, back in 1969 and back in a certain part of Belfast.”
“Belfast” will be released theatrically on Nov. 12.