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Trying to Find Your Way Out of It With Whatever Means You Have: Kenneth Branagh on Belfast

The isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic led Sir Kenneth Branagh to look back on his childhood. He wrote the screenplay for his new black-and-white movie, "Belfast" as a poignant love letter to the time when he first became aware of some of the sad and scary parts of life. Newcomer Jude Hall plays the character based on Branagh, with Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe as his parents. In an interview, Branagh talked about taking a character name from one of his favorite films, how watching movies with his family transported him to another world, what he learned about directing from Christopher Nolan, and what his young star learned from Dame Judi Dench.

It's such a tender movie. All I can hope is that my children someday make a movie in which I'm as glamorous as you made your parents. They're so gorgeous.

Wakana Yoshihara, who is our makeup and hair designer, said, "Did you idolize your parents?" I said, "I suppose. If you're lucky enough to be in a happy family then of course you're going to be seeing them rather glamorously." She said, "I thought so. Okay, so leave it with me." And then when I talked to Jamie [Dornan] and Caitriona [Balfe], and said, "Wakana showed you some possible references for your looks, what were they? Caitriona said, "It was 15 pictures of Brigitte Bardot." And Jamie Dornan says, "15 pictures of Marlon Brando." "So were they looking rather sexy?" They said yes. "Were you happy?" Yes!

My wife was saying the other day, "Everybody should be photographed in black-and-white with silver streamers behind them." Because there's a close-up of Jamie Dornan in the "Everlasting Love" scene where you just go, "Whoa." And there's two shots in the middle in a transition of time sequence where she's leaning back against the wall in a little short sleeve top and then you cut to him walking down an alleyway like he's James Dean

Yes, I think in terms of what you might call the heightened view of the film through the nine-year-old boy's eyes it ended up being legitimate, but also they happen to be very good-looking people who are very, very nice.

And Irish. 

Yes and 100 percent Irish in both cases.

That nine-year-old time of life is a hinge point for children for beginning glimpses of the adult world.

That's interesting. One thing I have found about this film so far is that it seems to activate other people's personal memories of these important times. And it's interesting that you say that. Certainly, for me, it was a pretty traumatic moment of being wrenched from the child to the adult. And you're not really ready for it. And then you have to very quickly adopt a whole series of disguises and pick up information any way you can about how life is run. You hang about on those staircases when the parents are talking. You listen when the bad guys are down the street talking about something else and try and negotiate your way through it. In my case movies really were one big way to try and understand the adult world. That's why I named a character Billy Clanton, which is a name stolen from a movie because he's one of the gang that fought at the O.K. Corral. 

My view of Billy Clanton going up our street dragging his son and then punching Mr. Stewart as it is in the film at the end, I said to young Jude, "That's exactly how I saw it from where you were standing in that distance and I had never seen a punch like that. I'd never seen a piece of violence like that." It's a loss of innocence moment where the unexplained and the violent, you know, the gray areas that it seems to bring up are very difficult to cope with I think.

And at the time it also drove me back to the movies thinking, "Well, then what happens when they do that? In the movies, the bad guys get found out. The good guy will ride into town, and also, given my own personal preoccupations, the good guy will get the girl." So yes, it is about trying to find your way out of it with whatever means you have, because religion in my case was nothing more than a massive scare tactic. It was very effective. I was scared.

I love the way you use the movies of the era as commentary and counterpoint as well as showing us the the way the characters were surrounded by those stories. Tell me about the choice to show the clips in color even though the rest of the movie is black-and-white.

It was partly to underline that for me, movies most certainly were an escape from what was happening and that the color itself was this immersive leap into a world so far away from Belfast, which I saw in shades of gray, where it rained a lot. I saw so many westerns on television where even Monument Valley was not all dusky red or anything. It was shades of grey and black. Not like the color of the movies and in a way the live quality of the theater, like the piece of "A Christmas Carol" that we show. That's how it was exploding in my head. One ran to it because it was so different, it was so transporting, and it was so much of a relief from what we were seeing. And it was also absolutely tied up in the family experience. That's when we went to see big films. 

I saw the James Bond film last weekend in 4DX with shaky seats, the smoke, and the water and everything. And then I looked back at "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and of course, we were persuaded by those amazing visual effects and felt immersed in it. But really all that happened was that the audience leaned forward and somehow you were completely captivated by it. And it was that. It was utter transportation from utter escape, utter relief, and release.

It is a challenge to tell an adult story through the eyes of a child and give us both perspectives.

We tried to keep things simple. He's a very smart boy. And he's kind, he's inquisitive. There was a moment while we were waiting for something. He was just standing by and he looked up at the barricades. Jamie said, "Imagine Jude, imagine if that was up at the bottom of your street now," and Jude sort of did a slow double take because he was in play land making the film. And then when you could see a penny dropping ... it was someone's real life. Louis McCaskey, who plays his brother Will, came up to me and said, "Did you really live in a house like this, Ken?" I said, I did. And he was amazed at how small it was. 

You could see that the two of them had a sort of burgeoning understanding of the reality of their own experiences. They both love sports and play and, and do everything that the characters in the film also do. But you could see as the film went on this burden that this changing world had for them. And that they began to understand and imagine in their own lives how extraordinary it would be and maybe even a little sense of how fragile it remains. 

So there was something you could see right on their faces that was an understanding of, "Oh, we don't want to go back here. Not to this bit. We like the playing, we like the fun, and we understand the Belfast of it all. We understand the large community, we understand all the humor, but this other side, we'd like not to have to understand that."

I heard that Jude got very close to Dame Judi Dench and that she gave him some pointers about acting.

Very much so. Mainly by example. For instance, in that little scene on the sofa between the three of them, when the grandparents do a little dance together. You can see Jude watch with genuine amazement at the commitment of Ciarán Hinds and Judi to this rather silly dance. They're pros. They were unembarrassed by any of. It was great for the characters. But you could see Jude, I mean, we were often capturing live his own genuine fascination with what these folks were doing. And that was part of the secret—to not rehearse much but to capture his thinking and his listening which were going to be so key to his performance. Half of it was reacting. Either hearing jokes or seeing action that he hadn't seen before and not giving him too much time to prepare. Because he can prepare, and that's good but mainly we wanted to catch the kind of happening of his thought process because it was changing before our very eyes and that was in a way the story of the film. 

He saw Judi would get there earlier than anybody else and so he started to turn up early himself. It's a phrase we use in films when the first "Judi Dench arriving own accord." I mean, she's come of her own accord; we have not called her. And we started hear, "Jude Hill, own accord!"

You've worked with some of the great directors as an actor. What did you learn from them?

The capacity to manage time without apparent hurry. Christopher Nolan is a master of this. Danny Boyle is a master of this. Nolan can be in the middle of the busiest battle sequence live with everything real in "Dunkirk" and handle a personal conversation that requires some delicacy between me and another character as if nothing else is going on. He seems to stop time. It's a result of tremendous preparation in every other department to allow for that moment. So I've learned that.

He's a wizard. You almost want to say, "Chris, you've got a destroyer there. You've got three planes in the air," and everyone is talking and he is listening. And I think what you learn from that is sort of primacy of the human dimension, if that's what the story requires, is something that he and people like him protect at all costs. I try to do the same thing.

What do your siblings think about the film?

I showed them the script first and wouldn't have made it if they hadn't liked it, because I was happy enough to have just written it. And then they liked it. And then I thought, "Well, let's see if we can do something with this." And then they were the first ones to see it. My brother was very choked up about the whole thing, but was full of good notes and everything. And then he was the one to ask my sister, "What do you think Mom and Dad would have thought about this?" And she said, "Well, they would have loved the casting." They would. I think they'd have been absolutely outraged if they'd known, if they'd been around. They were gathered many years ago. But if they would have been outraged, then they would have given me a lot of notes. They were good people. They were doing their best, and so does everyone else. 

"Belfast" will be in theaters on November 12.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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