Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is a film he holds near and dear to his heart, as the semi-autobiographical movie is a touching love letter to his childhood. Jude Hill stars as Buddy, a young boy growing up amid the rising political tensions of Ireland in the ’60s. An explosion on the street where his home is early in the opening scenes informs his parents’ eventual decision to move the family away from the city.
Putting family front and center was key for Branagh, who both wrote and directed. But equally important was remembering Buddy’s perspective.
Branagh says, “In the cut and framing, we talked about keeping the audience positively unsettled in the way the boy is.”
In a scene at a gate, when a villain comes up behind Buddy’s father, played by Jamie Dornan, “we’re very low on the ground,” the director explains. “You could say also it’s Buddy’s point of view, with this looming shape of the father’s back and the scary northern sky. The low angle is was important, because Pa is trying to be heroic, there’s this thread of the baddie— and it’s how his boy sees him: being brave.”
Key crew discuss how their respective crafts honored Branagh’s vision.
Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, editor
“Kenneth shot in a very painterly style. A lot of the scenes were held and had a depth of field. The mise-en-scene was just as important as the rhythm of the film. Ken and I were mindful to keep the film going, and some shots were tableau-style static scenes. With those, we interrogated the structure, [Sometimes] we shortened them, or even moved them where it could have a more visceral and emotional impact. Sometimes we had an abundance of footage shot on two cameras, other times we only had one or two shots. There was a simplicity to the style that I think helped with the invocation of memory.
“The scene where the father and Will are in the doorway talking to one another in the garden, the camera is wide, and they are framed by the door. Buddy walks in, and it’s an elegant choice by Ken to allow us to bear witness to the scene, and we’re seeing a lot through the eyes of Buddy. We worked hard to allow the audience in and feel the story building.
“Later in the film, during the riot, we used music from ‘High Noon’ — we juggled the social realism of the riot and the magic realism of music from that film — and the riot takes on another world through the eyes of a child, where there’s a bad guy and his dad is the good guy. The street that we just saw was like this moment we had seen with Gary Cooper on the TV just a few moments earlier. It was about counterbalancing the intensity of the riots and how a child perceives things.”
Haris Zambarloukos, cinematographer
“We have discussed black and white in our films, but it’s something we try to incorporate because we like how it filters out any unnecessary noise. Whatever film we do, we are careful about directing the audience’s attention in a very particular way: Our use of color, composition, symmetry and even Ken’s extremely beautiful blocking is one based on simplicity and minimalism. He likes to keep the actors as still as possible and he likes you to focus on their faces, their feelings and their emotions more than their movements.
“Black-and-white photography lifts the veil on the soul a little bit better than color can. This is something that only happens once you have the spectacular kind of performances that we got. It will not create emotion when it’s not there, but once that emotion is there, then I believe it rings clear as a bell with no distraction.
“We wanted to open the film with an ode to Belfast, a love letter to the city. Ken and I went on a location shoot. He showed me the city of his childhood and the streets, and what that meant to him. The docks are one example; they’re very proud of them. There’s also the shot of the Titanic museum, which is another tribute, and a lot of Irish stories are immigrant stories.
“When we transition to black and white,] we wanted to show the chaos of family. People leave their bikes and [strollers] outside, nothing has changed, and it was a striking image. It shows a closed community and the exact opposite of what we are led to believe. But what we had to do was revolve this around the boy and his POV. His world was turned upside down. We took a risk and placed a circular track on the street [to] see how we could choreograph it. It took a while to rehearse because that explosion was real. It had to be safe, and it had to be timed.”
Jim Clay, production designer
“It was about understanding the interiors of and the environment the people lived in. It was about building a believable period world which embraces at its center a working-class family, with fond memories in troubled times.
“The houses were similar — they were small with two rooms on the ground floor and two rooms above. There was also an outside toilet. It was about designing it so Haris could light it and get the shots he wanted. But it was all about imbuing the places with memory.
The homes were far from affluent, with few possessions. Ken said there was nothing there for decoration. You needed a table and chair to sit down and eat, but there wasn’t the money for decorative elements.
“We built everything and painted everything in the color of the period. Everything was a world of beige and brown. The windows were framed in bottle green. We created things in color that would give high contrast in black and white. The walls were wallpapered and we chose patterns that were not too intrusive. The door frames were a dark green or dark brown with a light-colored door.
“The whole thing was, we didn’t want to identify exactly where we were unless we were outside of Buddy’s house, because we were using one street for many streets and just redressing them.”
Kenneth Branagh on the crafts:
Van Morrison responded to the picture and produced that opening song, “Down to Joy.” In the context of that song, he realized, it’s as fleet afoot as the film hoped to be. I felt it would be nice and tight, and yet, it would not take itself too seriously even though we’d be dealing with serious matters.
We wanted those opening bits of photography to evoke the modern city and be very graphic about it – showing Belfast Lough and the Titanic museum. We wanted to get the color of Belfast, you see the sights of Belfast and then you travel into the more working-class parts of the town.
With Jude Hill and that black-and-white sequence on the street, I asked Haris, ‘You’re going around the boy, you’re going around on this track and it’s going to need to be steady. You’re going to need to physically negotiate turning around as you rearticulate the camera as we’re going round twice -360.’ He was confident he could do it.
We put as many things as we have in the playbox there: the boy’s performance which must be great because he centers everybody else’s. In the same shot, there are special effects, so it was a big logistical thing.
With Una, she is a filmmaker in her own right, she has directed things and she’s very musical, very rhythmic and percussive. When it comes to something like the shooting inside the supermarket, we used a lot of handheld photography, and [we worked on] finding, how you use both the overall length of a sequence so that it doesn’t become as powerful as the story might be, and it doesn’t become repetitive. When it comes to longer scenes like that, an editor has to possess the exquisite sense of timing about when you get in and get out of it and how to transitional sound with that. And she did.
On the costumes of the film, Charlotte Walter and I talked about my mother who had a strong sense of style and a great interest in fashion, but she didn’t have much money. She had a certain kind of pizzazz about her, and she loved dancing.
We talked about her closet being a little more timeless and less locked in. The idea was when you shoot in black and white, you always look for texture, you want sheen or the three-dimensional nature of garments. You want things where there’s tonal difference when they move in the light. So Charlotte had to adopt this approach where that sort of sense of style was not fighting their economic circumstance. She found a lot of originals. And as it happens, both Jamie and Caitríona have modeled before and they really know how to wear clothes.
With my father, he had a certain sense of that style. And it became about how things were cut. We looked at cardigans and the sensible working man’s coat. All of it was finding a textured, very vivid landscape.
Our little license area was that this was Buddy’s imagination, what they might have, but also what he saw, and he saw it in a little more of a heightened fashion.