Entertainment Belfast: Kenneth Branagh’s personal tribute everyone is talking about this awards season

Belfast: Kenneth Branagh’s personal tribute everyone is talking about this awards season

Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds play Buddy’s (Jude HIll) beloved grandparents. Photo: Focus Features
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The year was 1969, and the town was Belfast in Northern Ireland.

It was the epicentre of what became known as The Troubles, a 30-year conflict between Irish nationalists (Irish Catholics) and unionists (mostly Ulster Protestants) which developed into decades of bloody fighting over whether to remain part of the UK or join up with the Republic of Ireland.

Actor, playwright and director Kenneth Branagh, 60, mostly known for his Shakespeare catalogue and Murder on the Orient Express, grew up in this land of conflict, and in a nod to his personal homage to Belfast, his film has become the No.1 attraction for nominations for the upcoming awards season.

In a year clouded by controversy and a scaled-down Golden Globes ceremony, Belfast received seven nominations – including best film – on Tuesday.

Described by Focus Features as “a poignant story of love, laughter and loss in one boy’s childhood, amid the music and social tumult of the late 1960s”, the film also received a massive 11 Critics’ Choice Award nominations.

The Irish Times reported it may be the history in the making, with the hope that Belfast might become the first Irish film ever made to win Best Picture.

Childhood memories frame Branagh’s storyline

Branagh decided to tell a fictionalised story of what it was like for him and his family in Belfast during that time, told through the lens of a nine-year-old boy named Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill).

His charismatic working-class parents (Jamie Dornan, The Fall and Caitriona Balfe, Outlander, Ford v Ferrari) struggle to make ends meet, while Buddy kicks about on the streets of Belfast with his mates, has a teenage classroom crush and wanders into neighbourhood houses like they were his own.

Branagh told the Washington Post in October he was ready to “process” his own life through film, and began putting pen to paper at the beginning of the global pandemic in 2020.

He said the Troubles were “so immense and so complex that it can be hard for any film to do it justice”, so he chose instead to frame Belfast around Buddy’s experience.

“This is from the point of view of someone who doesn’t even understand what politics are, but who is experiencing the unrest,” he said at the time.

“So as a filmmaker, I suppose I was trying to conceptually tell the story of how ordinary people deal with extraordinary events they can’t necessarily – certainly a nine-year-old cannot – comprehend.”

With a world-class supporting cast in Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as Buddy’s beloved grandparents, “shot in lustrous black and white and accompanied by a rousing Van Morrison soundtrack, Belfast is a big-hearted ode to a city, its community and to family”, wrote the British Film Festival’s review.

Branagh shares stories of his children with Jude Hill, who plays a fictionalised version of him in Belfast. Photo: Focus Features 

A ‘beautiful script’

In a joint interview with Glamour magazine on November 11, Dornan and Balfe, whose chemistry on and off camera helped shape the story and keep it “playful”, shared their motivations for coming on board.

“When [the script for Belfast] came my way, the only cast was Judi Dench, who I had heard of in quite a big way. And that alone was just enough,” said Dornan, who began his career in 2001 as a Calvin Klein model before being cast in US series Once Upon A Time, then hitting the big time playing a serial killer opposite Gillian Anderson in crime drama series The Fall.

“I’m from Belfast – it’s bit of a no-brainer.

“If someone like Kenneth Branagh is making a movie about your home town, you want in. If I’m being honest with myself, I could have read the script, not really liked it, and still said yes, probably.

“But luckily I read it and was bowled over by it and felt this is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been offered as an actor to this point.”

Balfe was one of the last cast, and when her agent called and said, “There is this project, these are the people involved”, and she had a Zoom meeting with “Ken”, the last piece of the jigsaw was confirmed.

“The script is beautiful. Ken … is known more for his acting and directing, but he’s an incredible writer. The character was amazing and she really spoke to me. So it all was just a quick yes.”

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out: “The story that’s told is deeply affecting, and how many films contain five superb performances? This one does.”

‘This love will last forever’

Probably the most famous of the Everlasting Love versions, first a hit in 1967, was the reimagined U2 hit in 1988, but the latest version rounds out the Belfast soundtrack and is the unofficial theme of the movie.

At the film’s afterparty in Los Angeles on November 12, Dornan, whose credits also include ‘musician’, took to the stage and sang a “brilliant” version, with Balfe and Hall dancing in celebration of a film well received.

Meanwhile, the winners of the Golden Globes will be announced on January 9 but the format of the ceremony is unclear after US broadcaster NBC earlier this year dropped plans to televise the normal glitzy awards dinner in Beverly Hills following a controversy over the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group that votes on them.

Critics objected to the HFPA having no Black members and raised long-standing ethical questions over whether close relationships with Hollywood studios influenced the choice of nominees and winners.

The HFPA has since added 21 new members, six of whom are Black, banned gifts and favours and implemented diversity and sexual harassment training.

The group now has 105 members.

Despite these moves, major film and TV studios have tried to distance themselves from the honours and did not submit programming for consideration as they have in the past.

It is unclear whether any of the actors, directors and musicians nominated for Golden Globes will attend the 2022 ceremony, which had been one of the biggest Hollywood awards shows before the Oscars.

-with AAP