Belfast: 'A beautiful story about a beautiful city'

By Judith Cummings

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Image source, Rob Youngson/Focus Features
Image caption,
The film, Belfast, is an affectionate portrait of a city loved by its young protagonist Buddy, played by Jude Hill

"It's a beautiful story about a beautiful city."

And that story has taken a cluster of streets in Northern Ireland's capital to the 94th Academy Awards.

Belfast, Sir Kenneth Branagh's ode to his childhood, garnered seven Oscar nominations.

The winners will be announced on Sunday in Hollywood, but how has this highly personal story been received in the area Branagh grew up in before leaving for England as the Troubles began?

Branagh's childhood home of 96 Mountcollyer Street, off the Limestone Road, no longer exists.

Image source, Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
Image caption,
Kenneth Branagh's Belfast picked up the Best British Film at the Baftas

It was demolished years ago, but the street and its stories are at the heart of the screenplay Branagh began writing during the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020.

As restrictions eased it was the job of location manager Andy Wilson to reacquaint him with the area.

"All the stuff you see in the movie happened here, in this place, but we could never have shot it here because it doesn't exist," he told BBC News NI.

Instead the street was recreated on a set in England, but Branagh and Wilson biked the streets of north Belfast for inspiration, incognito in face masks.

"We did get asked by a lovely old man walking his dog: 'Hi boys, are yous lost?'

Image caption,
Branagh's childhood street has been demolished

"We were at the peak of Covid, but even at that, I doubt anyone would have been expecting Sir Kenneth Branagh to be cycling past them in the New Lodge that day.

"But we did get a few looks.

"It was great and a lovely thing to be a part of, just to cycle around and look at all his old haunts - the old cinema, the school, the chippy, the granny's, his place.

"It was a strange way to do a recce, but it was lovely."

While the real Mountcollyer Street was no longer there to use as a set, the area was recreated so vividly that some got the shock of their lives when they went to see the film.

When Lesley-Ann Brown sat back in the cinema she was surprised to see a familiar place on the big screen.

"My grandmother had a shop in Glencollyer Street, grocer's shop, and round the corner from her was a family she was very friendly with," she told BBC News NI.

That family was the Branaghs, indeed Lesley-Ann's grandmother had been at his parent's wedding.

Image source, Lesley-Ann Brown
Image caption,
Harriet Breen's shop in a neighbouring street provided the inspiration for Harriet's grocers in Belfast

"Kenneth Branagh lived in the next street and would have been in and out of the shop.

"The shop in the film is called Harriet's and that's my grandmother's name."

It's not the first time Harriet has been remembered by the celebrated actor and director.

"When he wrote his autobiography, quite a few years ago, my grandmother was still alive and he does mention Mrs Breen's shop and she was tickled pink," she added.

"She was very touched and remembered him very fondly and followed his career."

Image caption,
Lesley-Ann Brown didn't realise her grandmother's shop was in the film until she saw in on the big screen

Lesley-Ann said she and her family were "blown away" by the film.

"For Kenneth to remember it so vividly, you can't take the boy out of Belfast obviously."

Set in August 1969, the Troubles were just beginning, but the film is an affectionate portrait of a city loved by its young protagonist Buddy.

For youth worker Phil Gyle, the films theme still resonate.

"I remember one scene, and it's very, very true," he said.

Image caption,
Phil Gyle said the film's message is still relevant

"Buddy asks his daddy if there was any hope for him and his Catholic friend, and his daddy said as long as you love each other and respect each other, it doesn't matter what religion you are.

"As a youth worker that's the message we try and get out to all our young people, it's still very relevant today."

Belfast is Branagh's most personal work to date and has found success around the world and at countless awards ceremonies.

It won Best British Film at the Baftas and it's been nominated for seven Oscars.

It's thought its hopes lie in the best picture and original screenplay categories.

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