News, Culture & Society

My tumultuous Belfast boyhood: Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical new film

The summer of 1969. Man has just landed on the Moon for the first time, proving just how progressive the human race can be. But here on Earth fresh excuses were being found for reigniting an ancient conflict in Belfast, Northern Ireland. And all of this was witnessed by a young Kenneth Branagh.

Already seen as a strong Oscars favourite, Sir Kenneth’s autobiographical film Belfast takes in both the personal and the political as a community tears itself to pieces. 

This is a piece of British history that too few of us know about, even though it heralded the start of The Troubles, a 30-year conflict that had an impact on so many. Here Nicole Lampert and Gabrielle Donnelly reveal all you need to know about the film…

Jude Hill (pictured) stars as Buddy, fictionalised young Kenneth Branagh, in Belfast


Sir Kenneth with Jude Hill, who plays the young hero

Sir Kenneth with Jude Hill, who plays the young hero

It’s easy to forget that Sir Kenneth, a titan in the British acting establishment, is a Northern Irishman to his bones.

He was born in 1960 to a Protestant working-class family in Belfast, and lived a happy and peaceful life until The Troubles broke out following campaigning by Catholic civil rights activists for a more equal society. Within days barricades were built and neighbours were petrol-bombing each other.

‘Belfast is a city of stories and in the late 60s it went through a tumultuous period that my family and I were caught up in,’ says Sir Kenneth. ‘It’s taken me 50 years to find the right way to write about it, to find the tone I wanted. 

‘At the beginning of the film we see a world in transition. From neighbourliness, sunshine and community, it’s turned upside down by the arrival of a mob who pass through like a swarm of bees and lay waste to this peace.

‘I remember life turning on its head in one afternoon, almost in slow-motion, not understanding the sound I was hearing, then turning around and looking at the mob at the bottom of the street and life was never, ever the same again.’


The story starts with Buddy, a fictionalised young Kenneth played by Jude Hill, roaming the streets, his biggest worry being only how to have more chocolate and less church in his life. His passion is going to the cinema – especially to see Westerns. As the film shows, the Branaghs were a huge clan and he was never alone.

‘There were a lot of us,’ says Sir Kenneth. ‘I had a very, very large extended family, which meant that you felt secure and you knew who you were. 

‘My mother had 11 siblings, my father had five, so I had dozens of cousins. We would all meet in each other’s houses.

‘Belfast is a small city in that everyone knows everyone. It was really more like a village than a city because it was impossible to get lost there. If you didn’t know where you were, you’d go up to someone and say, “My mam’s Frances,” and they’d say, “Oh, I know Frances, she lives in that house, you go on and get back home.” It was a very intimate place.’


Lewis McAskie as Will, Caitriona Balfe as Ma, Judi Dench as Granny, Jamie Dornan as Pa, and Jude Hill as Buddy

Lewis McAskie as Will, Caitriona Balfe as Ma, Judi Dench as Granny, Jamie Dornan as Pa, and Jude Hill as Buddy

Buddy’s beloved grandmother is played by Dame Judi Dench, a friend of Sir Kenneth’s. He appeared at her house one afternoon with the script. 


Kenneth looked at how other film-makers had told their personal stories and was particularly taken by Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain And Glory. 

‘It was based on his life but fictionalised to some degree, and that’s what I’ve done. Buddy is a fictional version of me and he’s starting to filter his experiences through exposure to a lot of films and TV. 

‘Those big screen images had an enormous impact on the development of my imagination and I wanted to show Buddy having those same experiences. 

‘He loves Westerns and Belfast had something of the Western town about it, so at times I did feel as if I was writing a Western that was being constructed in Buddy’s mind.’

Pictured: Kenneth on the replica Belfast street they built in Hampshire

Pictured: Kenneth on the replica Belfast street they built in Hampshire

‘My eyesight isn’t good and Ken came round and read the whole thing to me,’ says Dame Judi who has macular degeneration. 

‘My mother was from Ireland, and was a fiery, passionate person, and I understand Granny’s relationship with Buddy well. I have a grandson I’m very close to.’

Ciarán Hinds, who plays Buddy’s grandfather Pop, grew up in the same Belfast streets as Sir Kenneth, but on the other side of the divide. 

‘I was Catholic and Ken was Protestant so we’d never have met, but the film opened up huge things in my heart about history, time and childhood,’ he says.


The film is made in black-and-white to re-create the sense, from Buddy’s point of view, that he’s in a film with goodies and baddies. ‘It’s a Hollywood black-and-white which is a velvety, satiny black-and-white in which everybody seems more glamorous,’ says Sir Kenneth. 

‘That was what I wanted to use because a nine-year-old boy can see his parents as tremendously glamorous and it also allows for everything to seem larger than life.

‘There’s a certain spirit and a vitality in Belfast that I hope is reflected in the film, along with some life-affirming humour. I hope people feel the joy and sometimes the sorrows of the city and what happens to the family… and understand that by looking at reflections of other lives, we feel that we are not alone.’


Belfast native Jamie Dornan, best known for The Fall and 50 Shades Of Grey and now in BBC1’s The Tourist, appears as Buddy’s dad Pa, a joiner who works in England because there are more jobs there but who returns home to Belfast every other week. 

‘I know men like that,’ says Jamie. ‘My father was a man like that. His father before him was a man like that. I think even before the conflict began, there’s something about people in Belfast being up against it a wee bit. 

‘It’s never been a particularly easy place to live. From the dawn of time, Belfast is just riddled with complications. There’s no person my age who grew up in Northern Ireland who wasn’t affected by The Troubles.

‘Nothing affects me more deeply than going home to that land – it’s deep within my soul, and I want to tell stories from where I’m from. I come from a place that has a very rich, very deep and complicated history. There are a lot of great stories that come out of that, and I think it’s important to tell them.’

Pictured: Granny and Pop, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, with Buddy

Pictured: Granny and Pop, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, with Buddy


Because Belfast has changed so much since 1969, and because they were filming during the pandemic, the decision was made early on to build a replica Belfast street at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire. The Belfast family formed a ‘bubble’ which bonded them tightly.

‘We did some shooting in Belfast but because of the pandemic it wasn’t feasible to take over a real street and ask people to move out of their homes,’ says production designer Jim Clay. 

‘The street we ended up building doesn’t exist any more but one of the noticeable things in Belfast is that in many of the streets you can see hills and countryside over the rooflines in one direction and in the other you can see the docks. So you always know where you are.’


Another Belfast native, Van Morrison, provides the bulk of the soundtrack including creating a new song for the film. ‘When I was the age that Buddy is in the film, Van Morrison was already a Belfast legend,’ says Sir Kenneth.

‘That voice, that unique combination of folk and soul and country and jazz and rock had just conquered the world. His music spoke of places in the city such as Cyprus Avenue. 

‘So his hometown was in his work and to have his music in a film called Belfast seemed like a magical alliance and a real gift to this movie.’ 

Belfast is released in cinemas on Friday.


Find local lawyers and law firms at