Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe explain why film Belfast is so "important"
Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe star as Ma and Pa in Sir Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed film Belfast.
It is a film generating a huge amount of awards conversation.
Based loosely on the real-life experience of director Sir Kenneth Branagh, Belfast follows the life of a young boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) who is growing up in the titular city in 1969.
As Buddy enjoys his life with his family and friends, school dramas, and the escape of going to the cinema, the growing impact of The Troubles begins to be keenly felt in the only community that Buddy has ever known as home.
Two of the most pivotal characters in Buddy’s world are, of course, his parents, with Outlander star Caitriona Balfe playing his resilient 'Ma' and The Tourist actor Jamie Dornan taking on the part of his hard-working 'Pa'.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Balfe and Dornan discussed their roles in the acclaimed drama, portraying characters loosely based on their director's parents, and what it was like working on that Everlasting Love dance scene together.
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Firstly, the pair discussed what aspects of the project they really connected with ahead of joining the production as part of the Belfast cast.
“I think I was one of the last people, sort of, to come on board,” revealed Balfe about her involvement in the film.
After being approached to read the script by Branagh, the actress did and said: “It just spoke to me on so many different levels. You know, I felt firstly that this world that he had put down on the page was just so beautiful. There was so much empathy and compassion there.
"I felt like I hadn't seen a film that depicted the north and this sort of subject matter in the same way before. And it was, it felt really important to me that this was something that was going to be put out into the world.
“But I felt like Ma was someone that I could connect with and she felt like people I knew. There was a lot of my own mother that she reminded me of, and just other Irish women that I knew.“
She concluded that “it was not a yes, it was more like, please".
Meanwhile, Dornan said he “really didn't even need to read the script” upon knowing it was a Branagh project and Dame Judi Dench was attached to play his mother.
He also added about the script: “I think it's really important for people to see how the beginnings of the conflict affected just normal, hardworking people and that hasn't been represented on screen before."
As much of the film was written from Branagh’s own childhood experience in Belfast and leaving it behind, it might have brought added pressure to Balfe and Dornan to portray characters based on the director’s parents.
However, the two actors have revealed that Branagh allowed them to bring much more to the characters than one might expect.
”Well, Ken so graciously and so wonderfully from the very get-go sort of made us feel like he wanted us to bring as much of ourselves to it,” revealed Balfe, “and he was never really interested in us trying to do a kind of documentary version of his life or try and give him our summation of what his parents were exactly like.”
Agreeing, Dornan noted: “You know, we never felt such freedom on-set before and that is saying something considering we're portraying the most important people in the director's life, you know.
"I've experienced that before where I played characters that are close to the director and real people and that has brought an extra added pressure on the expectation to it. Which has been difficult and make your days on set harder, because you're aware of it very much – it feels like this thing in the room that you're trying to adhere to.”
Meanwhile, a standout moment in the film occurs towards the end and sees Ma and Pa engage in a euphoric dance sequence set to the Love Affair track Everlasting Love.
The couple, who struggle with debt, the immediate dangers of The Troubles and a medical crisis in the family, have a loving escape from trauma in the swoon-worthy moment.
Discussing the preparation for the scene, an amused Balfe noted: “I mean, I think it's safe to say that I don't think either of us feels like we're natural dancers. "No, it's funny, and I think Jamie and I both had the same experience with this – you read this script, and you get so caught up in the beautiful storytelling of the family in all of this, that, at least when I read it, I kind of glossed over the fact that there was any dancing, or at least you sort of think like, they sort of start dancing, and you just imagine that they're going to cut out straightaway.
“So on our first day, when they came to us, they're like, 'And you're going to have a dance rehearsal'. I was like, ‘I’m sorry, we're gonna have a what?'”
However, on the scene itself, the Irish actress added: “It's such a beautiful moment in the script and in the film, and it just feels so earned. And I know, when we were filming it, you get caught up in the joy of it all as well and it just felt really special.”
Dornan commented: “Yeah, it felt like it still had a bit of a magic to it that day, you know, for us. Having so many of the cast around that day.”
He went on: “So it felt like a sort of party, almost, you know, and then I love the way that scene was shot, I think it's really beautiful, the lighting and everything looks great. So...if we were just able to stand there keeping step...emote properly, then we were kind of lucky because it didn't just look this set-up. It was beautiful.
“It’s very pivotal – as much as it's a release and this bit of a song and dance number, the emotion of what's going on in that scene is really vital to the story. And I think for us, it was like, if we can get that right there, that's the thing we need to focus on.”
Appreciative, he said of Balfe: “I was just getting so much back from this one that it made my job much easier.”
Elsewhere, a prominent motif in the film is the vibrant presence of art - particularly cinema and theatre - for Buddy and his family, and how it offers an escape from their troubles.
These are characterised by moments of vibrant colour amid the nostalgic black and white palette of the film, with one sequence of the family seeing the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang being particularly memorable.
When asked about their own transformative visits as young people to the cinema, a nostalgic Dornan recalled: “Yeah, I mean, for me, [it was] such an event to go to the cinema, you know, and I remember when I think back to, like, Indiana Jones. That for me was a big one, and like how much of a thing it was to go there with your mates or with your family to see those things. It was such a special occasion.
“But for me, my dad was a massive Steve Martin fan. So the only time we ever went as a family - I really do, I’m being serious here - the only time all five of us went as a family to the cinema was to see whatever Steve Martin's latest offering was. So it was, you know, Parenthood and Father of the Bride. I remember Father of the Bride 2 came out and it being absolute hysteria in my house that they made a sequel, so excited we were to see that film. So good times.”
Visits to the cinema were much less frequent for Outlander star Balfe, however, but no less impactful and have added to her appreciation of the theatrical experience.
Balfe revealed: “I mentioned this before, but we didn't even have a cinema in my town. So when I did go to the cinema, it was just the most magical thing.
“I remember it was just such an extra special event. I remember the first film, at least the first film that I can remember, was this animated film called All Dogs Go to Heaven and I just... I thought it was the greatest film I'd ever seen for a very long time afterwards, just because you'd seen it up on the big screen and just the whole atmosphere of communal watching.
“I think it just really does add something to an experience.”
Given the ever-changing nature of cinema following the COVID-19 pandemic, this feels like something to remember now more than ever.