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The Real Story Behind Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’

The award-winning film is based on the years before Branagh’s family fled Northern Ireland amidst the violence known as the Troubles.
Belfast Movies True Story
Focus Features
By  · Published on September 29th, 2021

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, Belfast.

Sir Kenneth Branagh has portrayed some of the most iconic men in British history and culture. He played the titular characters in film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Henry V. He starred as Victor Frankenstein opposite Robert De Niro’s Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. More recently, in 2018, he played the Bard himself in All Is True. Branagh also directed all four films.

Others may know him best for his role as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. And also as Commander Bolton in Christopher Nolan’s DunkirkBolton is based in part on Sir William Tennant, who served as an admiral in the Royal Navy. In 2011, Branagh played another British icon, actor Sir Laurence Olivier, in My Week with Marilyn

But in Belfast, Branagh’s work takes a turn inward. The film, which Branagh wrote and directed, depicts a coming-of-age story based on his own life in Northern Ireland in the 1960s (watch the first trailer for Belfast here). At the time of the project’s announcement, Branagh called it his “most personal film.

Here’s a look at the true story that inspired Belfast and what Branagh and his family have said about making the film:

The Troubles in Northern Ireland

Branagh was born on December 10, 1960, in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. His childhood coincided with the beginning of a violent period known as the Troubles, which lasted for decades. A quick geography lesson: the island of Ireland includes both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the latter of which is typically referred to as just Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is a sovereign state, while Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland contains a large concentration of Protestants, while the Republic of Ireland is a predominantly Catholic state. Generally speaking, the conflict occurred between Catholics who identified as Irish (nationalists) and Protestants who resisted joining a majority-Catholic state and identified as British (unionists).

Facing discrimination, Catholics began to organize for civil rights in Northern Ireland, but the government responded with “brutal force.” This resulted in new movements within the Catholic community to end the partition of the island. Protestant groups, not wanting to end their ties with Britain, resisted the efforts. And the conflict became more turbulent.

While most people did not advocate for violence, many groups — including the British army and police — caused it to escalate. More than 3,500 people were killed during the period. In 1998, the conflict came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. However, as the New York Times reported as recently as April 2021, the legacy of the Troubles lingers and the threat of violence remains to this day.

Fleeing Belfast Amidst the Troubles

Kenneth Branagh’s parents, William and Frances, raised three children in “relative poverty” and lived “in the shadow of a tobacco factory.” William worked as a plumber and woodworker. During the early years of the Troubles, in 1969, the Branagh family left Belfast for Reading, in England.

Childhoods were not spared by the Troubles. Branagh once said (via TalkTalk):

“The Sectarian thing was never far beneath the surface, all this thing of being stopped by kids in the park and asked ‘are you a Catholic or a Protestant?’ and it was always a trick question so that they could beat you up.”

Branagh recently told Vanity Fair of those early years in Belfast:

“In a way, innocence was lost, things would never be the same again. It’s something I’ve been trying to understand, as I grow older, that it was a moment when the world tried to insist that you put away childish things, and demanded that you are dragged into this perilous adulthood.”

The Branagh Family

The main cast of characters in Belfast is based on members of Branagh’s family. Jude Hill plays a young boy named Buddy, while Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe play Pa and Ma. Branagh told Vanity Fair of the personal considerations he took while casting both characters. Of Dornan, who grew up in Northern Ireland, Branagh said:

“He greeted the script like it was an old friend. You could feel the excitement in his voice, that he felt he knew this person.”

As for Balfe, she was born in Dublin and eventually moved to the border of Northern Ireland. So she, Branagh said, “knew about the challenges of uprooting.”

At the center of the film is the family struggling to decide whether they should leave the country amidst the conflict. During the Toronto International Film Festival, where Belfast won the coveted People’s Choice Award, Dornan jokingly told The Wrap:

“[Branagh’s] siblings were pleased with the casting, especially Caitriona, probably less so with me.”

Dame Judi Dench (a regular collaborator of Branagh’s) and Ciarán Hinds play Granny and Pop. Branagh told Vanity Fair that he had a deep relationship with both of his grandparents, whom he would often spend time with after school. He said Hinds, who grew up down the street from Branagh’s home in Belfast, “kind of recognized his own father in this character.”

Branagh said he wanted to make a film about his childhood for years, but the onset of COVID gave him the push he needed. When he showed the script for Belfast to his siblings, the filmmaker said they were supportive. He also told Vanity Fair:

“My sister said to me, ‘Wow, for a very, very private, quiet man, you really put it out there, haven’t you?’ So I guess I did. Sometimes it has to happen that way. Sometimes I think things have to come out.”

A Love for the Movies

During a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Branagh said of returning to Belfast:

“There’s a much stronger sense that Northern Ireland is more part of the world now. I used to get the sense that there was a kind of slight siege mentality for whatever reason, a slightly chippy thing going on sometimes. But it feels there’s a very, very positive energy about the place.”

Perhaps one of the few ways young Branagh felt connected to the world in Belfast was by going to the movies. The Vanity Fair interview with Branagh ends by noting that moviegoing was one of his few comforts as a child, and the film is partially “an ode to the movies.”

Some of the filmmaker’s childhood favorites, including One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, feature in Belfast when Buddy and his family go to the movies. Of the cinema, Branagh said:

“It felt like the movies, and that experience of big-screen movies, they gave me a new home — in fact, the home that I’ve been living in for a large part of my adult life. When I started to write this movie, it felt like it’s about time to go back to my real home.”

Belfast hits theaters in the United States, United Kingdom, and around the world on November 12, 2021.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.