With 'Death on the Nile' delayed, Kenneth Branagh gets personal in 'Belfast'

By Josh Rottenberg

TELLURIDE, Colo. — As a director, Kenneth Branagh has never shied away from tackling big subjects, whether it's the Shakespearean heft of his 1996 "Hamlet" or the comic-book spectacle of 2011's "Thor." But with his latest film, "Belfast," he tries to get his arms around something in its own way even more daunting: his own childhood.

Set in Branagh's native Northern Ireland in 1969, the film, which hits theaters Nov. 12, follows the exuberant, imaginative 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) as he and his family navigate the turbulence of "the Troubles," finding moments of love, joy and humor even as the conflict rips apart their close-knit community. Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds round out the cast of the film, which is shot in black-and-white and steeped in Branagh's own impressions from that time.

The day after the film's world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Branagh was feeling relieved that his most personal film to date had struck a chord with the audience, with some prognosticators speculating that it could land the five-time Oscar nominee back in the thick of this year's awards race. It will next screen as a gala presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"I really felt that there was a quality of concentration in the audience that I haven't heard for a long time," Branagh said at Telluride. "I mean, if there was one cough in that screening last night, I'd be amazed." (Given that this year's festival is taking place in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, a cough might have stood out for other reasons as well.)

The film follows a roller-coaster period of major studio filmmaking for Branagh, from the highs of box office hit "Murder on the Orient Express" — in which he also starred as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot — to the low of big-budget bust "Artemis Fowl," which was unceremoniously dropped onto Disney+ early on during the COVID-19 pandemic. His "Orient Express" sequel, "Death on the Nile," has subsequently bounced around the release schedule — possibly owing as much to the presence of scandal-ridden star Armie Hammer as ongoing pandemic uncertainties.

The Los Angeles Times spoke with Branagh about what drove him to go back to his roots for a deeply personal project, how he reconnected with that 9-year-old Belfast boy and where he sees the film industry headed as it struggles to overcome its own troubles.

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Q: How long had you been mulling the idea of making a film about your childhood?

A: I'd made notes before and it was really just a question of how and when it might come up. But I also increasingly understood that the events of that time — because now I've got plenty of decades of experience to notice it — remained really the most profound events in my life.

Even without romanticizing it, there was a clear point where there had been an absolute sense of identity, a clear understanding of your place in the world. You knew who you were. And that felt like it was the last month of my life when I really knew who I was, where I felt like I couldn't get physically lost. And everything after had been a movement away from that. So the film was somehow about trying to return to who you were, acknowledging who you were — and indeed, whether you like it or not, who you are.

Q: How did you get back into the frame of mind of that 9-year-old boy and see the world through his eyes?

A: Everyone has bits of their life that fully imprint on themselves. I don't have kids but various friends have talked about these ages when kids are like sponges, when they can pick up a language or pick up an instrument like that. That was sort of a choice moment for being a sponge.

Once I realized we were in trouble [from the growing violence] — when I stepped out the front door after that riot and the ground had been taken from beneath our feet — I think that coincided with this appetite and capacity to absorb. You realize, "I'd better understand quickly about the good and bad things that the minister is talking about because apparently life is all about making choices." It was that sort of attempt to understand, why was the world working like this?

Q: The movie is constantly shifting between innocence, violence, humor and fear. How did you approach balancing all of those tones?

A: The precise recipe was an evolution, but something that seems very prototypically Belfast is a sense of humor that deals with the gallows, as it were. I once did Shakespeare's play "Love's Labour's Lost," and the character of Biron at the end, as penitence, has to go to hospitals and make people who are dying find things funny. And the line he says is, "To move wild laughter in the throat of death? It cannot be, it is impossible." I remember thinking when I was working on this that that's what people in Belfast did: They found a way to move wild laughter in the throat of death.

The only way to cope sometimes is to go straight to the absurd and find it funny, even though the flip side of the same point is completely tragic, or to lose yourself in music and dance and daft jokes. So I think the movie was always going to have that sometimes schizophrenic quality. It was part of the chaos of the mix at that time, laced through with these survival tools.

Q: There is a long history of filmmakers looking back at their childhoods for material and inspiration, with Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma" being a notable example recently. Did you see yourself as working in that tradition?

A: Objectively, I can definitely see it that way. The truth is, every film is personal. But when you feel the importance of the subject matter to the filmmaker — I enjoy experiencing that. A favorite example of that for me would be Louis Malle's "Au Revoir les Enfants," which is absolutely heartbreaking.

What I admire in such works is that, aside from the journey of going back, sometimes those films happen at a point where the filmmaker has acquired enough experience to do less, where it's the art that hides the art. You're trying to remove artifice and let it just be because to not do that would somehow be a kind of betrayal.

Q: This is the type of more intimate, adult-oriented movie that was already facing challenges reaching audiences before the pandemic, and now those challenges are only greater. Obviously no one has a crystal ball, but having already adapted to these seismic shifts by moving to a streaming release on Disney+ with your most recent film "Artemis Fowl," what is your outlook going forward?

A: Well, the first thing is that film festivals become critically important for the reminder of what it is when you sit in the dark and watch a film. I'm an inveterate moviegoer and I enjoy it everywhere and anywhere. I'll always be there for cinematic content, as grateful as I have been for everything that streaming services have provided through the lockdown.

The world is an evolving thing so we have to adapt. I think we're going to have to really work hard to have film earn its place. There are all the big pressing business models that are changing that suggest, "Farewell, it's over." I don't think it's over. It's a struggle. It's a fight. So we as artists have got to start to fight, making sure that the pursuit of excellence is never dropped, whatever the genre. Quality, quality, quality — that's what will get people back.

Q: The pandemic forced your next Agatha Christie adaptation, "Death on the Nile" [co-starring Hammer and Gal Gadot and distributed by Disney] to be pushed back a few times from its planned release last year until 2022. Has it been frustrating to have to sit on that film for so long?

A: Because the pandemic has given so many people a hard time, I've got no complaints. You know, "Shock, horror! Film is delayed a bit!" I'm going to live through it. It opens on Feb.11, in theaters only, all over the world. That's what I know.

Q: We're at a point where speculation about the awards prospects for a movie like "Belfast" starts the second its first festival screening ends. Is it hard for you to tune that out?

A: I've been around long enough to know that way madness lies. Getting it made? Two thumbs up. Getting people to see it? Fantastic. After that, it's all gravy from here. This is why I do not do social media or anything — I don't want to torture myself. Just enjoy the here and now — and the here and now is pretty special. Because we definitely don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, do we?

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

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