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As a working-class boy from Belfast, Kenneth Branagh found Shakespeare the key to a new life. By Philippa Hawker.

Actor, director and writer Kenneth Branagh

Actor, director and writer Kenneth Branagh.
Actor, director and writer Kenneth Branagh.
Credit: Johan Persson

Kenneth Branagh has a clear memory of his first encounter with Shakespeare. He was 13 and his English teacher asked the class to stand up and take turns to read aloud from The Merchant of Venice. “It really was incomprehensible,” Branagh says. “A disastrous experience.”

Another teacher “who was more of an enthusiast” took the class to a production of Romeo and Juliet before they read the play. Branagh was intrigued enough to do his own research. “I borrowed a couple of LP records from the English stock cupboard: Olivier and Gielgud doing speeches from Shakespeare,” he tells me. “With Olivier, it was accompanied by music and sound effects and it was orchestral in every sense. But Gielgud was just a single voice. Sometimes they were the same speeches and it was fascinating to hear that it could be done differently.”

Listening to Shakespeare, he says, “I was quick to realise that there was a sort of music to it that went beyond or alongside direct comprehension.” Trying to work out what was being said was “a Sherlock Holmesy kind of challenge” that he also enjoyed. “And it was just fun. I found something I was very enthusiastic about.”

It’s an enthusiasm that changed his life. Branagh, 61, has long been associated with Shakespeare productions, as actor, film and theatre director and founder of a theatre company. That association has often led people to assume that he was a private school student with an Oxbridge education.

His new feature, Belfast, shows that the reality was very different. “I think it’s been surprising to some and astonishing to quite a few,” he says. He’s written and talked about his childhood before, but never on this scale.

Belfast, in cinemas from February 3, is set in August 1969. Punctuated by a soundtrack of Van Morrison songs of the time and filmed in rich black and white, it’s an evocation of the world of a nine-year-old Northern Irish boy from a working-class family during the onset of The Troubles.

Although Branagh has directed almost 20 features, Belfast is his second original screenplay and the first to draw closely on his own experiences. Jude Hill plays Buddy, a young boy whose life revolves around family, school, football, television, cinema and a crush on one of his classmates. He is very close to his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). His mother (Caitriona Balfe) runs the household and keeps a close eye on the family finances; his father (Jamie Dornan) is often away, working for a building company in England.

Hill is on screen in virtually every scene from the instant he appears, playing happily in the street, in a tracking shot that evokes the comforting familiarity of a small community. Moments later, an attack is launched on the Catholic households in a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood.

Branagh wanted to capture this sudden incursion as it appeared to him as a child. He describes it as “all of this turmoil in the place, the slow-motion sense of a strange sound. Bees buzzing was what I heard, but it turned out not to be bees… they were people, coming towards us. It was a slow moment that developed into a kinetic and frenetic experience on that street, cacophonous sound, chaos, jagged and sharp.”

Windows were smashed and paving stones pulled up as the child watched in fascination, rooted to the spot.

Buddy has scarcely any context for what has taken place. Things happen: “The police coming in; the army coming in; this thing of signing in and signing out to the street, all of the small, impactful ways in which your life was changed.” Beyond that, says Branagh, the boy is aware of “news reports, half-heard phrases from neighbours about what was going on on the other side of the town. But in terms of politics, which I suppose for him is men in suits talking on television, he didn’t understand any of that.”

Branagh did not wish to include any more background to these events. There is an expectation, he suggests, “almost this kind of burden you have when you do anything that concerns Ireland, that you have to explain the whole situation every time”. In this instance, he says, “I knew what I wanted from the perspective of the boy.”

There’s a great deal of warmth in this perspective, a comforting embrace of daily life. “I was aware that the film would have a lot of sort of straight-up-and-down naturalism,” says Branagh. “People saying what might seem rather banal things to each other in quite simple ways.”

The place of religion in Buddy’s world is fluid. Branagh’s family were nominally Protestant, “but my mum and dad got out of churchgoing as soon as they could”. He and his older brother “were the representatives sent to the church with the money for the collection plate”.

They sat through some extravagant hellfire sermons – “The preachers, often visiting preachers, were almost always these Gothic, pantomimic, incredibly melodramatic actor laddies, in a way” – and in the film they’re responsible for a certain amount of comically drawn anxiety, amplified by Buddy’s feverish imagination.

The most significant influence on the boy’s world view comes “in a more beautiful transformative way”, Branagh says, from Hollywood film classics. We see footage from movies such as High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Branagh talks about choosing shots and angles that deliberately echo familiar images from westerns. He named a local enforcer Billy Clanton, after a historical figure who took part in the famous gunfight at the O. K. Corral in 1881.

“So many times when I was doing this, I felt as though I was writing a western,” he says. “I wanted to keep the family sort of mythic – in my own head anyway – so I don’t give them names, it’s Ma and Pa. I didn’t want it to be an encyclopaedia about my own personal life. So it’s Buddy. Let him be the friend, the everyman that we might identify with or empathise with.”

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Branagh’s family left Belfast for England when his father was offered a full-time job there. They went to Reading, where Branagh attended a local primary school and then a comprehensive. He became interested in acting but didn’t have much of an idea how to pursue it.

“I didn’t know there were drama schools,” he says. “And then I found out a bit, and it became a sort of mission to educate myself about how you could get into show business.” This led him to auditioning for and being accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

After graduating from RADA, he hit the ground running. He was cast in a leading role in the West End in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, set in an English public school, playing a schoolboy communist of the 1930s. The Times critic Irving Wardle described him as “a great discovery, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, fully matured”. On television, Branagh was cast as a working-class Belfast boy in a trilogy of plays for the BBC.

He didn’t realise until he read an article about himself in the paper how unusual it was to have had such a flying start. And his parents didn’t either. “Even 10, 15 years into my career, they were still terribly worried about what my future might be, because they had not been able to nor could they ever help me,” he says. “If you became a joiner like my dad, or you’re in the building trade with all sorts of cousins and mates and things, they can somehow give you a nudge along. But not in this case. Their ignorance about how it was done was as complete as mine.”

He gravitated quickly towards direction, first for the stage, then screen. That shouldn’t have been surprising to him, he says. “When I think of the kid in [Belfast] the storytelling instinct is very, very, very strong and perhaps dominant.”

He co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987, with a mission to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone. He directed productions himself, and he gave several actors, including Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, the opportunity to do the same.

Making his first feature film, Henry V (1989), “was a passion project where I felt that I had a very strong vision about telling that particular story on film”. He told an interviewer at the time, “I was convinced I could make a Shakespeare film that would reach the people who watch Batman and Crocodile Dundee.”

The first movie he made in America was a highly strung Hitchcock-inflected thriller called Dead Again. He returned to Shakespeare with a witty, sparkling Much Ado About Nothing in which he and Emma Thompson sparred as Benedick and Beatrice, alongside a cast that included Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington.

His seemingly charmed run ended with his next project, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), for which he was director and star. It was a big-budget, over-the-top production, with Robert De Niro as the monster. The reviews were brutal, it failed at the box office and he bore the full brunt of it.

He says that his next movie, In the Bleak Midwinter, was definitely a response to the Frankenstein experience. “So I wanted to do something that was on a much simpler scale, when I didn’t have to be in the necessary committee world of big-picture filmmaking.”

In the Bleak Midwinter, his first original screenplay, is about a Christmas production of Hamlet mounted in a small English village. It is a rueful, entertaining tribute to the messy dynamics and flaws of a theatre troupe functioning as a kind of family. “And I felt very, very liberated by the experience.”

He followed this with his own cinematic Hamlet (1996), a production that went big in every conceivable way. It’s a four-hour version that combines the first folio and second quarto texts of the play, and it was shot on 70-millimetre film. Branagh directs and plays Hamlet; Derek Jacobi is Claudius, Julie Christie is Gertrude and Kate Winslet plays Ophelia.

Since then, he has continued to balance acting and directing, stage, television and films. On screen, there have been Shakespeare productions and a run of big-budget directing assignments: a Disney live-action Cinderella; Marvel’s first Thor movie; an action thriller, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit; a remake of the Agatha Christie mystery Murder on the Orient Express, in which he also stars.

As an actor, Branagh’s roles have ranged from a vainglorious Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to a disconcerted Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, from a rueful Shakespeare at the end of his days in All Is True to A .O. Neville, obsessive enactor of the Stolen Generations policy, in Rabbit-Proof Fence.

He’s been nominated for five Oscars in five different categories, without a win. This Oscar season Belfast is considered a contender. An unexpected consequence of this, he says, is that he has found himself on discussion panels with directors such as Jane Campion, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Asghar Farhadi and Guillermo del Toro. “I’ve loved that,” he says. “It’s so fascinating to hear how other people do it.” He considers himself still an “eternal student” of acting and directing, who learns about both from watching and observing, being a director and being directed.

His new Poirot film, Death on the Nile, is also being released in February, and he’ll be seen later this year as Boris Johnson in the TV satire This Sceptred Isle. Beyond that, there are acting and directing projects at various stages.

And there is more Shakespeare to come; two works in particular. One is The Comedy of Errors – “I really really feel as though there’s some magic in that play, for all its youthfulness.” The other is King Lear. “It took me so long to get to Macbeth, years and years of circling it. And the same thing’s happening with those two plays at the moment.”

For Branagh, there’s no going past Lear. When he saw it at 16, he was struck by the line: “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” He’s starting to think that it’s time for him to embody those words: to find his way into the role at last.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "A player of many parts".

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Philippa Hawker writes on film and is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.

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