Kenneth branagh and director of photography Haris Zambaloukos have collaborated on a number of films, starting with 2007 Detective and including Branagh’s series of major studio productions up to Artemis poultry, in 2020. But when they started working on Branagh’s latest work, Belfast, it was a whole different ball game. It wasn’t a big budget studio movie that required building a world based on familiar intellectual property. Maybe it was exactly the opposite, a little story taking place in one place (and mostly on a street) and a very personal story in Branagh. Based on his childhood in Northern Ireland at the start of the period of conflict known as The Troubles, Belfast follows a young boy named Buddy, whose idyllic life is disrupted by an explosion of violence.
“One of the things we originally talked about was how to break free and do something in a different way than what we did in recent movies that we did,” says Zambarloukos. “With Ken, we made pretty complicated studio films that were complicated because we had to create worlds where they weren’t there, literally with pretty grandiose sets, pretty complicated lighting setups. And it was an opportunity to come back to something more naturalistic, simpler, calmer and freer.
The idea of shooting in black and white came very early, because it was “to simplify things by removing things that would distract from the story, from the performance”, explains Zambarloukos. Not only would they shoot in black and white, but they would focus on using natural light and fast movement. “One of the things that was clear was that we were putting the film on the shoulders of a very young actor. And so sometimes when the machinery of the film takes place, the amount of gaps and pauses in focus and logistics can be very detrimental to young performers, ”explains Branagh.
The Focus Features version rests on the shoulders of 10 years of Jude Hill, who plays the role of Buddy, with his parents played by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe, and grandparents played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. The cast deliver performances that vary from sweet celebratory scenes to emotional moments tied to tough decisions about doing what’s best for her family. And cinematography is a key part of telling this story, one black and white image at a time.
“The dance was critical”
Belfast is told through Buddy’s eyes, which means at times, in the midst of all the uproar, there are moments of heightened reality centered around his glamorous parents. The Irish had a way out of their troubles with moments of levity, Branagh says. “The thrill of being free from the challenges of their lives – economic challenges and limited opportunities and just running a family in a place with the highest unemployment rate in the UK – meant any opportunity to escape it was capture.”
“I think we definitely felt that we needed to balance our film when we were kinetic, when we were happy, when we were sad, when we were silent, and that every shot had to be won, in that regard,” Zambaloukos says. “And it was a pretty thoughtful process on our behalf, a process of restraint and moderation and a lot of listening at times and genuine participation in other scenes.”
One of those happy scenes is seen here, when Buddy’s parents Ma and Pa take to the dance floor after Pa performs “Everlasting Love” on stage. It was one of the most glamorous moments in the movie, and was probably more glamorous than the reality at the time, as we witness it through Buddy’s eyes. “Well the dancing was critical. It was part of the energy of the day, ”says Branagh, who was very inspired by his own parents. “My parents had that kind of sparkle between them, and she loved to dance.”
The scene takes place in a men’s club which has been decorated and transformed into a dance hall. Branagh says Zambarloukos came up with the idea of adding the garland curtain behind the group. This sparkle, combined with the sparkle that emanates from the brass, created strong black and white visuals. “These things became essential for exactly what the characters in the play would do, is how do we turn this ordinary room in a gray, rainy corner of Belfast into a bit of dazzling?” Branagh said.