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When the world went into a pandemic shutdown in spring 2020, Kenneth Branagh used the time at home to explore a story he had waited 50 years to share — that of his own childhood.
“We were in a lockdown two years ago and I was writing about a lockdown that happened 50 years ago where each end of our street was blocked by barricades that had suddenly been formed from the ripped-up paving stones of our street,” Branagh said of his latest film Belfast, which he wrote and directed as a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in Northern Ireland amid the social tumult of the 1960s. “Life was suddenly about what matters now, now that we’re under this kind of threat — what’s important to us and how are our relationships and how are our families. It sent us looking inside for what you might say makes life worth living.”
After a successful run on the festival circuit, including winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, Belfast premiered in Los Angeles on Monday at the newly opened Academy Museum, where Branagh and his cast reflected on the highly personal shoot, which the director said he wanted to “start with me, and look outwards.”
Jamie Dornan, who plays a version of Branagh’s father, said he signed on to the film within 24 hours of hearing about it and was allowed plenty of freedom when it came to portraying such an important figure in his director’s life.
“[Branagh] never made it feel like something I should be afraid of or worried about, or that I didn’t have a handle on,” Dornan told The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet. “He was very ready to give me advice and steering on the ways of his father should I seek them out, but he also was really encouraging of myself and Caitriona [Balfe] certainly to bring our own flavor to that.”
Added Balfe, who plays a character inspired by Branagh’s mother, “Ken’s an incredibly smart man, and he has very subtle, smart ways of getting you to a place he wants you to go, making you think it’s all your idea. He never made us feel like he wanted us to do the documentary version of his parents, but he also made us feel from day one that we were the right people to play the roles.”
The Focus Features film also stars newcomer Jude Hill, as a 9-year-old version of the director, and Branagh’s fellow Belfast native Ciarán Hinds as his grandfather.
Belfast, a black-and-white, 97-minute indie, is a departure from the type of film Branagh has typically found himself helming of late, having directed Thor, Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express in recent years.
Of the approach, he said, “It was about seeing characters forensically — our DP Haris [Zambarloukos] describes color as a medium in which you can really describe people, but black and white is a medium in which you can really feel them. I went with that intuitive response,” adding, “My Belfast growing up was a monochromatic world of gray skies with lots of rain. The color in my life came from the movies, and that became the way of establishing a visual aesthetic for this film.”
And as for the Oscar buzz, which seems to be growing by the day, “I’ve made lots of films that I’ve been lucky to do, and I’ve looked at life from both sides now, and this side of it is nice,” said Branagh. “I’m just glad that people are interested and talking about films again. We’ll take an audience any time.”
Dornan shared the same sentiments, adding the overwhelmingly positive reaction “is a bonus, but essentially you just want to enjoy the job. I’ve been doing this long enough I feel like I’ve experienced every level of reaction to movies and I feel like I’ve learned to just really enjoy the actual job itself — put the most into it, get the most out of it, and we did that.”
Following the screening, held in the museum’s David Geffen Theater, Dornan seemed to continue enjoying the job, hopping on the afterparty stage for a rendition of “Everlasting Love,” which he also performs in the film. Belfast hits theaters on Friday.
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