Kenneth Branagh can pinpoint the end of his childhood innocence to a single moment in time. “I was heading back in for my tea, having been called by the bush telegraph of my mum yelling on the front step, and that cry being carried, relay-style, by half a dozen other mums until I got the message,” Sir Ken recalls of the August evening in 1969 when life in Mountcollyer Street, north Belfast, changed forever. “As I was coming in, there was this sort of surreal slowdown of sound and vision. At first I thought it was a bee, then a swarm of bees. And then I gradually realised that the shadowy shapes at the bottom of the street weren’t bees. It was a crowd. It was a rioting mob, and it was coming our way.”
This sudden explosion of incendiary violence, in which a frenzied lynch mob burned all the street’s Catholic families out of their homes, is vividly recreated in Branagh’s terrific, semi-autobiographical new film Belfast, a captivating chronicle of a year in the life of the Troubles, as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Protestant schoolboy Buddy (Jude Hill).
“My experience of that violence is that it’s chaotic, it’s anarchic, you can’t really see what’s going on,” the now 61-year-old tells Weekend. “I was lucky, because I was grabbed by my mother and shoved under the kitchen table. But it happened so quickly that you have the feeling it could happen at any time. That leads to a very unsettled life. From that point on, we lived in a state of high alert; we were on code red. It seemed like the last day of childhood, I guess is how it strikes me.”
It would also prove to be a turning point in ways the nine-year-old Branagh couldn’t have begun to imagine. “I think the vividness of those 20 seconds, where it kicked off, has basically haunted me,” he says. “It was literally the 20 seconds in which my life changed. I wasn’t going to live there any more [after much soul-searching, the family moved to England to escape the violence the following year], I wasn’t going to sound like that any more, I wasn’t going to do anything that I might have done coming out of that particular culture. My life changed with a very dramatic shock.”
In many ways, it changed for the better, setting the future Sir Kenneth Branagh (he was knighted in 2012) on the route to becoming one of Britain’s most vital creative forces, achieving success as an actor, writer, director and producer in everything from Henry V and Hamlet to Harry Potter and Hercule Poirot (and that’s just the Hs). But he has always carried a certain grief – perhaps even a degree of unprocessed trauma – for the life he lost.
“One of the things that I think led to the delay in finally investigating this was the fact we never spoke about it as a family,” he says. “There was an absolute inbuilt belief that you shouldn’t indulge in your so-called suffering, when so many other people have real problems. The attitude was always: ‘get your head down, get on’. I think that’s okay as well, but although lots of masks and disguises have been in the way from there to here, I feel that, essentially, you can take the boy out of Belfast, but you can’t take Belfast out of the boy.
“I’ve wanted to write something about Belfast for a long time,” he adds, “and as I’ve considered it over the years, it was the leaving of Belfast that had clearly dominated my life. Up until nine years old, it was a very secure life, it was one where I knew my relationship to the world. I lived in a street that advertised the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and I was very happy in that village. I knew everybody, and everybody knew us. But then the world turned upside down. “
In the film, Jamie Dornan plays Buddy’s pa, a carpenter who spends much of his time working away in England – as did Branagh’s own father, William, a joiner – while his ma (Caitríona Balfe) does the hard parenting yards. Also looming large in Buddy’s world are his grandparents, played with twinkly, scene-stealing charm by Ciarán Hinds and longtime Branagh collaborator Dame Judi Dench (“She’s a remarkable person who has enriched my life,” he says) and his classmate Catherine, the (Catholic) object of his yearning, played by Olive Tennant (daughter of David).
With an early Oscars buzz adding to its haul of 10 major film festival prizes, Belfast pulls off the tripwire act of being warmly nostalgic – at a push, you might even call it feelgood – without flinching from the brutal reality of sectarian violence (a “tribal, polarising, with us or against us” mentality that feels horribly relevant to today’s politics, notes Branagh).
It is also a hymn to its creator’s love of stage and screen: while most of the action unfolds in black and white, whenever Buddy steps into a theatre or cinema – to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang take flight, or boggle at Raquel Welch in her fur bikini – the world explodes into colour.
“My imagination lit up,” Branagh exlains. “I lived in a sort of fantastically impressively monochrome world. It rained a lot, we lived under northern skies, on a very cold latitude. So going to the cinema – which was a much more comfortable experience than going to church – was just full of colour. I was small, but the movie palaces, they seemed huge. They made a big stamp on my imagination. It was joyous and intensely coloured. It links absolutely to who I am right now in terms of the enjoyment of storytelling.”
What would the young Kenneth have made of the idea he would go on to forge a successful career in that Technicolor world? “He’d be bamboozled to the point of incomprehension. It’s in the film – there’s a moment where this nine-year-old kid is sitting, as I did, outside a betting shop, while my father’s putting a bet on, reading a comic. In this case, it was Thor, and if you’d said to me, ‘in about 40 years’ time, you’ll go to a place called Hollywood, and you’ll make a motion picture of this’ [he directed 2011’s Marvel film adaptation]… I’d have said I had more chance of going to Venus…”
The film opens with a montage of hero shots showcasing modern Belfast as a confident, vibrant global city. Is Branagh worried that recent events have put all that progress at risk? “Everybody would have to be worried about it,” he says. “We know that Brexit became an issue without a real sense of how the island of Ireland would be affected by it. Plus it’s been a very volatile political landscape in the north of Ireland, with the closure of government and all sorts of challenges. The political situation there is never easy. The peace has to be won every day. It’s a fragile thing. Part of the reason for those shots of the city is to remind us that we’ve come a long way. Mine is just one story about one family, one street, but the tapestry of stories urges us not to forget; the progress that’s been made is too precious to give away.”
I’ve never made any great claims to working class hero status. It’s just a fact of where I emerged from.Kenneth Branagh
In 1970, William Branagh arrived with his pregnant – and somewhat reluctant – wife Frances and their two boys to begin a new life in Reading, Berkshire. “I wanted to fit in,” admits Branagh, who tried to suppress his Irish accent. “My initial experience was very positive, but we were very isolated. You sort of had to become another person. We moved up in the social scale a bit, too, the lower middle-class thing, and that in itself was a little hard to get to grips with. People ate different things, wore different things. In Belfast, everybody had been in the same boat.
“I went to a fairly rufty-tufty secondary school, where I was bullied for a bit, and that closed me down. I became quite a guarded individual. But I toughened up pretty quickly, and I liked my time in Reading. I was surrounded by some very good people – people who’ve been very loyal, actually.”
Having discovered a love of drama through school plays and a local theatre group, he won a place at RADA (where he performed a Hamlet soliloquy for the Queen), and quickly found himself emerging at the head of a new wave of classical actors. At 26, he co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, and was widely hailed as the greatest young actor of his generation. Was that an entirely healthy thing to be told at such a tender age?
“Well that’s where the Belfast thing was a help,” he smiles. “You couldn’t take it seriously, because nobody you knew or had been brought up with would allow you to. Getting ideas above your station was the cardinal sin.”
How, then, did William and Frances react when, at just 28, their son cemented his reputation as “the next Laurence Olivier” by writing, directing and starring in an acclaimed new film adaptation of Henry V? “Well, thank god they didn’t really know what was going on,” he laughs. “They didn’t really get what my job was. When they visited the set of Henry V, they were astonished by the size of it. My father’s first question to me as we walked around the set of the English Court was, ‘what’s going to happen to all this wood?’ I said, ‘well I think it gets chucked, dad’. He was appalled at that, so he immediately tried to work where it could go. I think it found a good home, thanks to his natural interest in timber.”
As a working class joiner’s son from Belfast, was he bothered when many people naturally assumed he must have enjoyed the same sort of privileged, Cambridge Footlights background he depicted in his 1992 film Peter’s Friends, or labelled him and then-wife Emma Thompson as Britain’s leading ‘luvvies’?
“As the late, great David Frost used to say: ‘never complain, never explain,’” he shrugs. “I’ve never had any complaints, or none that I would voice beyond my own living room. Oscar Wilde, who was a famous inhabitant of Reading during the two awful years he spent in jail there, used to say, ‘There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.’
“I’ve never made any great claims to working class hero status,” he adds. “It’s just a fact of where I emerged from, and it’s had a significant impact on the way I’ve approached everything – including Shakespeare, which I’ve done from what you might call a more populist position. I’ve always felt art should be for all, because that’s kind of built into where I came from: Belfast and Reading.”
There have been bumps in the road along the way, of course (“for sure,” he nods). His 1994 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a critical and commercial bomb, and a run of flops in the early noughties saw his stock fall for a time (though he did win an Emmy for playing SS leader Reinhard Hedrich in 2002’s Conspiracy, and plaudits for his self-satirising turn as peacocking professor Gilderoy Lockhart in the same year’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
The past 15 years have found him back on a roll, though, directing box hits like Thor, Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express (a sequel, Death on the Nile, is due later this year, for which he’ll reprise his star turn as Hercule Poirot). In 2015, he formed a new theatre company, with himself as actor-manager, while recent screen roles have included Dunkirk, Tenet and his BAFTA and Emmy-winning stint in the BBC’s adaptation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels.
“You just have to accept you’re going to make a lot of mistakes,” he says, of sustaining a long-lived career. “You’re going to annoy the bejesus out of a lot of people. You just are, and I always have. So you have to learn to live with that and go, ‘Well that ain’t much of a cross to bear…’
“My headline take on it all his gratitude,” he adds. “Gratitude for the people I’ve had the chance to work with, and the people I’ve had the chance to play to.”
He’s also grateful that he got to make some special memories for his ma and pa, who died in 2004 and 2006 – such as when he introduced them to President Clinton at an event in New York in the mid-90s. “We had a picture taken with the Clintons, and they were so excited they stayed up ‘til 5am in their hotel room, talking about it,” he says, smiling. “I can picture it now – the three of us, arm in arm, my mother in the middle, and her just stopping as we were walking along and saying, ‘boy, this is a long way from York Street’, which is where they were brought up in Belfast. They couldn’t believe it. That was a really beautiful moment in my life.”
Belfast is in cinemas now
FROM BELFAST TO BORIS
After his marriage to Emma Thompson ended in 1995, Branagh had a four-year relationship with his Frankensteinco-star Helena Bonham Carter. He married film art director Lindsay Brunnock in 2003.
Belfast was very much a product of the coronavirus lockdown, he says. “There was a vast amount of uncertainty [during the Troubles] – the very uncertainty we all found ourselves facing at the start of the pandemic. It was so quiet. I had time on my hands, and this lockdown sent me right back to the other lockdown I experienced, when both ends of our street were suddenly barricaded, and you had to sign in and out.”
Later this year, Branagh will be seen as Boris Johnson – complete with astonishingly convincing make-up transformation (below) – in Michael Winterbottom’s Covid 19 TV drama This Sceptred Isle. “The job is to be as accurate and as unsentimental as you can,” he says of playing the controversial PM. “You have a job to do, which the script requires, and you do it.”