Kenneth Branagh and Ciarán Hinds: Belfast Boys On Growing Up Across the Divide
The Observer, 6 February 2022
The actors grew up in the same city on opposite sides of the Troubles. Here, they reflect on revisiting their past in Belfast, Branagh’s acclaimed, highly personal new film
When the Troubles kicked off in Belfast in August 1969, Kenneth Branagh was eight years old. He recalls cowering under a table with his mother and his older brother as paving stones were torn from the street and hurled through the windows of their Catholic neighbours. Ciarán Hinds was away on holiday in the countryside, and only found out what was going on when his father, a doctor, phoned to say he wouldn’t be joining the family for his usual week, because he felt honour-bound to stay and tend to his patients.
Branagh was from working-class Protestant stock, while Hinds was a 16-year-old former altar boy from a Catholic family, whose school was close to the Branagh house. Though they never knew each other, they would have gone to the same cinema, hung out in the same park, and suffered the same Sunday doldrums. “Belfast Sunday evening, you know, was a grim time,” says Branagh. Even the kids’ playground in the park was shut, Hinds adds: “And not only was the playground locked, but each individual swing was too, and the roundabout was padlocked.” “It was savage, wasn’t it?” chips in Branagh. “Brutal, brutal!” sighs Hinds, shaking his head in mock disbelief.
Spruced up for a photocall at an upmarket hotel in London, in the final publicity push for Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film Belfast, they have the easy banter of two drinking buddies enjoying the craic over a Guinness in an Irish pub. But, though they went on to the same London drama school – Rada – it has taken more than half a century for them to get together to process an experience that ushered in decades of bloodshed, and deeply affected each of them in different ways. “When the new school term started, there was this sense of a major elemental change,” says Hinds, whose family stayed in Belfast through the Troubles. The Branaghs, meanwhile, emigrated to the English town of Reading, driven out – the film suggests – by an increasingly vicious with-us-or-against-us culture on the streets around their home. Belfast is dedicated to “those who stayed, those who left and all those who were lost”.
The Troubles are not the only bit of history that has shaped this most personal film. Branagh started work on Belfast in March 2020, emerging from his shed after his first day’s writing to find Boris Johnson on television announcing the lockdown. “I’ve always known that the separation from Ireland, and the separation from a settled sense of knowing who you were, was a big thing in my life,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to write about it, but didn’t know what the story would be or who it would be for. And I suppose it was really the lockdown that unleashed a way to tell it, because, particularly at the beginning of it, so many people from all parts of the world, who I hadn’t seen for a while, got in contact, really wanting to know how you were and what you were doing, and I was doing the same thing. It sent me back to that sense of this story being about separation, and whether, in the telling of it, you could reconnect to something that was permanent, and not merely an exercise in sentimentality or nostalgia.”
Six months later Hinds was in Lyon, where his partner, Hélène Patarot, was rehearsing a play, when his agent got in touch to say Branagh wanted to fix up a Zoom call. “Ken said, ‘Would you mind if I sent you the script?’ I managed not to shout ‘Would I mind?’ And a few pages in, something just connected, deep back into the core of the home that you’ve left; at the root of it was the authenticity, and the fun and the spark and the soul.” As “Pop” – the grandfather of nine-year-old Buddy – Hinds is a back-yard philosopher who dispenses advice – and maths homework – from a throne on the outside toilet, while the formidable Granny (Judi Dench) sits at the window, listening in, with a put-down always to hand. There is a 19-year age gap between Hinds and Dench. “I said: ‘I’ll age up and you age down and we’ll meet in the middle,” he says.
The part of Buddy is played by Jude Hill, who was just nine when the film was shot. The perspective and palette of the film is shaped around his ardent awkwardness, its monochrome broken by flashes of brilliant colour as he sits with Granny in the cinema, eyes wide in delight as Raquel Welch and Dick Van Dyke romp across the screen in One Million Years BC and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He competes with a maths geek for the attention of a clever Catholic girl in his class, is lured into a gang and coerced into joining a shoplifting raid on the local corner shop, escaping with a single bar of turkish delight, which nobody likes. How true to life are these dramatic anecdotes?
Well, says Branagh, his father was a joiner like Buddy’s, who was often away working in England, and he did compete for the attentions of a Catholic classmate with another boy who was much better than him at maths. In the run-up to filming, he took the company on a tour of Belfast, which included a visit to the house in which the girl used to live. He has no idea if she would have any memory of him: “She probably only remembers the maths geek.” There also really was a cornershop called Mr Singh’s, where he once got involved in a shoplifting escapade. “The turkish delight episode is mortifyingly true. It was all I could bloody well grab. Mr Singh’s was at the bottom of the street, so it was madness. Just a few hours later a real copper turns up at our house thinking ‘I’ll give five minutes to scaring the living bejaysus out of this kid’ – with the full approval of my mother. I had to explain to Jude about the old way of policing – that if you saw a cop car outside the house it could only mean one thing.”
For those who witnessed Branagh’s spectacular rise in the 1980s – playing Henry V for the RSC while still in his early 20s and then setting up his own Renaissance company, enabling him to reprise his performance on film five years later – his account of his early years comes as a surprise. By the time Branagh emerged from drama school, Hinds was a regular at Glasgow Citizens theatre – “a working-class people’s theatre doing an incredible European repertoire, which seemed to have every exciting young actor in the country: there’s this fellow called Ciarán Hinds, a bloke called Gary Oldman, and another one called Mark Rylance,” says Branagh. “And I couldn’t get an audition for love nor money. Then John Boorman’s Excalibur arrived with another tide of Irish actors, and Ciarán was there again. He’s always been right in the middle of those waves.”
Hinds, meanwhile, had his own outsider narrative going on. “It’s very funny because in our generation there were hardly any of us,” he says, though he had been friends with Liam Neeson since they started acting together in amateur productions in their teens. Though his major roles have mainly been in the theatre – he met his partner, the French-Vietnamese actor Hélène Patarot, while working on Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in 1987 – he has worked with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and was ranked 31st in an Irish Times list of all-time great Irish film actors in 2020 (one ahead of his Belfast co-star Jamie Dornan).
To see the two men together is to witness the yin and yang of a successful life in showbusiness: the reliably good and quietly in-demand character actor, who has combined a blue-chip career with nice little earners in blockbusters such as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones (“I never think: ‘I want to play that role.’ My mind doesn’t work that way,” Hinds has said), and the mover and shaker, who has made a speciality of directing himself in starring roles. When the doors did open for Branagh his origins were nowhere to be seen. He was the new Laurence Olivier, heir to a tradition of great actor managers, whose power matches, first with Emma Thompson and then with Helena Bonham Carter, meant he was seldom out of the gossip columns.
The memories tumble out of him. “Can you now imagine, having seen this film, how discombobulating it was for me?” he demands. “Not to deal with the work – the work was amazing, and to have a chance to make a film of Henry V and have our own theatre company and everything. I woke up this morning with this incredible sense memory of 1 February 1988, Borough Market rehearsal room, Much Ado About Nothing, with Judi Dench directing and me playing Benedick. I just remember I was as happy as a sandboy. Almost from the time I left Belfast, that was the first time I felt: ‘God this is it. I’m in a family, and with somebody who knows what they’re doing. We trust each other. We’re doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.’
“Then cut to a year later and suddenly you’ve made a film of 'Henry V' and there’s a bit of a pre-digital world media storm. So you’re in way too many newspapers. You’re annoying the bejaysus out of plenty of people. And it was completely at odds with the background I came from, so I dealt with it as best I could. It wasn’t so much impostor syndrome, just that I never needed or asked for the rest of it. I knew you had to bang the drum and you couldn’t be churlish with people, but you paid a price.”
He stresses that he’s not playing the victim card. “I’m sure I said and did some stupid things, but I was always a devotee and an enthusiast, so the real me was always watching your man here [he nods at Hinds], or people like him that I admired, and thinking: ‘God, isn’t it amazing what they’re doing.’ For me, the thing about being famous, or a star or a personality, was that I didn’t really know quite how to handle it. And I’m sure I mishandled it. And now of course, I couldn’t give a monkey’s about it because life’s too short to worry about that kind of thing. And I’m back to enjoying the work.”
Belfast has already won him a Golden Globe for best original screenplay and last week was nominated for six Baftas, including best film. It looks set for a good showing at the Oscars, but a reminder of that other sort of notoriety came the day before our interview, when a little social media storm blew up over a newspaper column suggesting that Jamie Dornan, who plays Buddy’s “Pa”, was too good-looking to pass for a working-class joiner from 1960s Belfast. “Could you get in touch with [the writer] and say that we need a word with him? Because that’s possibly insulting to the men of Belfast,” riffs Hinds, in his best barroom heavy drawl. “Just possibly insulting to my father,” laughs Branagh. “Yeah,” says Hinds, “that would certainly be insulting. Gorgeous man.”
Joking aside, they agree that the furore cast light on the architecture of the film. Buddy’s Pa is a glamorous figure to his son, who elides the heroes he sees on family cinema outings with the semi-stranger who rides into town once a fortnight bearing gifts. “The film is rife with the vocabulary of what we would have seen in cinemas quite close to each other, but through a nine-year-old’s eyes,” says Branagh. “The stories that helped him frame the way the world was came out of westerns and glamourised figures on the screen. And he’s at that age when you hope and want your parents to match up to John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart – or Gary Cooper, who was all that plus sensitive.”
Part of the point of sticking so closely to the young boy’s perspective, adds Branagh, was that the film didn’t have to paint a political picture, “because that’s not what the boy saw: what he saw was small-scale intimidation, the beginnings of a kind of gangsterism, and at that stage he wasn’t in a position to see higher political causes. So it inevitably has a narrowness of perspective, which means that you can get away without doing what many mightier minds than mine have done, which is to fall prey to believing that it is right and proper to try and explain everything.”
Hinds still has sisters in Belfast, though he lives between Paris and London and has visited less frequently since his mother died a few years ago. It’s a very different city today, he says. “You really don’t want things to break out again. I would despair if they did. But as we know, it only takes a single match to strike a tinderbox. I’m hoping that in a few years’ time, the British public will see sense and vote to go back into Europe. It’s not about surrendering. It’s got to do with understanding that things might take longer than you think, and having patience and thinking further ahead to what it means to generations to come.”
As simple as it sounds, adds Branagh, the message of the film is summed up by Buddy’s Pa, after the little boy solemnly asks if there could ever be a future for him and his Catholic classmate. “Pa says: ‘She could be a vegetarian antichrist for all I care. But if you respect each other, and you’re kind, then they’re welcome in our house any day of the week.’ So the film is a plea, really, for what I hope the future holds, which is open communication, understanding, respect, tolerance – all the things that are easy to say, and hard to do. But the prize at the end of that is peace and prosperity. I think that’s worth going for.”
Belfast is in cinemas now.