Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

Judi Dench spent a lot of time on TikTok during the first British conquest in early 2020, under the guidance of her grandson and performing hand-jivey dance routines. This would not be her last performance of that year. In the autumn she traveled to Northern Ireland to act in the drama of coming of age. Belfast. This time it was her director Kenneth Branagh. His confinement was spent writing the screenplay, a highly personal story of a young Ulster boy set in 1969, when the Troubles flared up in a 30-year tragedy.

Last September, the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. More festival triumphs followed for the rest of 2021 in Toronto, Rome, London and Rio. Now Belfast became the bookmakers’ favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars in March and has seven nominations for this weekend’s Golden Globes.

Yet the long stretches of Covid limbo between both Dench and Branagh left disorientation. Even this joint interview in central London feels strange, they confess. “My rhythms are gone,” Dench says. “I say to myself, ‘It’s because you’re in your eighties, you stupid old man.’ [She is 87]. But in fact, many people are faltering. ”

Lewis McAskie as Will, Caitriona Balfe as Mom, Judi Dench as Grandma, Jamie Dornan as Dad and Jude Hill as Buddy in Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast'

The Family in ‘Belfast’: Lewis McAskie as Will, Caitriona Balfe as Mom, Judi Dench as Grandma, Jamie Dornan as Dad and Jude Hill as Buddy © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Branagh (61) nodded energetically. “We had so much uncertainty, all our emotions are right on the surface. I now feel very close to tears. I only told Judas yesterday. “

For each other, Branagh and Dench are Ken and Jude. Their dynamics have the easy double-edged sword of artists who play – and longtime colleagues. “Too long,” Dench says. Branagh dates their first meeting to 1985 and a gloomy BBC training studio nicknamed the North Acton Hilton. “I was 24. I still remember how Jude swept in, toiling a lot in high suede boots.” (Dench disputes the verb: “I have never swept anywhere.”)

The production was a TV adaptation of Spoke by Ibsen (to whom Dench happened to discover recently, she is closely related). She remembers a story from the set. The director gathered his cast for an almost silent rehearsal rehearsal, in keeping with the drama’s grim undertones of syphilitic madness. Moments passed. Then another actor, Michael Gambon, jokes about potatoes. “Ken and I went to pieces. Do not cry. None of us could stop. That was the tension. Until a voice came over the loudspeaker saying “Miss Dench and Mr Branagh, you may leave.” We were literally sent home. “

Yet there were lessons to be learned. As Branagh remembers, “Spoke was the first time I saw Jude in the last moments in front of a scene. She’s like an Olympic athlete. Just this extreme laser focus. I thought ‘Jesus Christ, Ken, forget about Michael Gambon’s potatoes, you’ll do well to stay here.’

Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench with Emma Thompson on the set of 'Look Back in Anger', c1989

Branagh and Dench with Emma Thompson on the set of the TV drama ‘Look Back in Anger’ in 1989 © TV Times / Getty Images

So is their band. “We’ve worked together 12 times since then,” notes Dench, including their collaborations including 2017s. Murder on the Orient Express, several Shakespeare and starring the Bard and his wife in the 2018 film Everything is true. Branagh was already a rising star when they made Spoke. By 1988, at just 27, he was directing Dench in his film Henry V. This earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.

Belfast goes even further back, both social history piece and Branagh origin story. Not everything in it is autobiography; the larger parts are. Like the nameless family in its midst, its own Protestants were in a Catholic corner within a wider Loyalist enclave, while sectarian riots engulfed the city in August 1969. In the movie, the parents of the young hero, Buddy, debated leaving for England. In fact, the Branaghs left Northern Ireland after the riots. Their middle child was nine when they settled in suburban Reading, 20 miles west of London, young enough to quickly lose his accent. Adult acquaintances have long been surprised to hear he is just as much a boy from Belfast as George Best or Van Morrison (who wrote the film’s score).

Branagh pulls winning performances from his cast: the slender newcomer Jude Hill is his alter ego; Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe the parents. Dench plays the grandmother, a kitchen-apron matriarch. (“Like Buddha,” Branagh says.) She has fewer real lines than the other clues. She also makes the whole movie work. The last shot is Dench, a wordless close-up shot, brilliantly worded. “I do not feel any way I am the key to the film, ”she says with feeling. But the moment reminds you of the complex figure behind the sociable British “national treasure” in which she is often simplified: an evildoer who once bewitched London in high suede boots (“I should have worn them today”); A Quaker; a precision talent.

For all the property claims made on her by the British media, part of the real Judi Dench hair remains alone. “I do not want to go into business to be a Quaker, but it gives you a private, quiet center.” She gestures to herself and laughs. “Whatever anyone may think of this fluttering thing on the outside.”

The director and cast of the film 'Belfast' on set

From left: Kenneth Branagh, Lewis McAskie, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe on the set of ‘Belfast’ © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Kenneth Branagh sits on a chair and reads a screenplay on the street set of his film Belfast

Branagh recreated the streets of his childhood for the film © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

When the Belfast riots broke out in 1969, Dench was already a theater star. She was also aware of the looming problems. Like Branagh, she is less an icon of Englishness than is sometimes accepted. Her mother was a Dubliner. “Mother was still alive in 1969 and we had family in Belfast, so we were very aware of what was happening. When the British troops entered, it was like the beginning of Covid – people felt it would be over in three weeks. But I do not know that I ever thought so. ”

I ask them both if they are now optimistic about peace in Northern Ireland. Branagh gives a long, sincere answer, referring to the need to bequeath hope to new generations, and praises the “imperfect miracle” of the Good Friday Agreement, the collective resistance to violence among ordinary people. Dench look up. “I want to be,” she says.

When she’s not talking, Dench sometimes looks at the floor. She revealed in 2012 that she was experiencing macular degeneration – the vision loss condition that makes it impossible to recognize faces, for example. For some time she had to have screenplays read to her. So it was with Belfast. Branagh began writing early in the pandemic – recalling, he says, limited time and aware of “there was a story to tell”. His grandmother was transposed from real life as a pivot of the fictional family, and he always wanted Dench to play her. “I was hoping something here would scare Jude. Because she likes to be afraid to play a character. ”

Is this true? “Oh, I’m always scared,” Dench says. “I always made jokes when I was doing at the Old Vic plays in my twenties that this was the one where I was going to be rumbled.” After so many good performances, what is she afraid of? “Not to do the thing justice.”

Judi Dench with Jude Hill, who stars as Buddy

Judi Dench with Jude Hill, who stars as Buddy © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Aside from humor, you feel what really brings her and Branagh together is perfectionism. For Dench, it also provided the opportunity to help a pal make his movie to work with the kind of director she appreciates, “Someone who tells you to do it better – and Ken can tell you how with ‘ a word. “

There was also the simple appeal of a job. In conclusion, Dench found that her work ethic was insistent on her, without any real work being able to occupy it. “I kept thinking, ‘I should learn the sonnets.’ Did I learn the sonnets? I have not. ” Belfast, she says, was an outcome. “We were all in masks, and because I can not see now, I started conversations with the wrong person forever. But to be part of a unit again – oh, the relief. ”

While shooting in 2020 meant regular tests and color-coded trails, a counter-intuitive joy of life also kicked in. “Precisely because so much care was taken, it meant Covid was not the first thing you thought of.”

Often filming with a skeleton team, Branagh says makes Belfast could feel like friends shooting the breeze. “In fact, we had to spend a lot of money on Covid protocols to achieve that. But it felt appropriate, because the film is about the fragility of community and enjoying the good times. And we were a fragile community that did just that. ”

Now, Branagh’s small, personal movie is a heavyweight of the awards season. Yet his life away from the camera, despite 40 years of fame, was largely kept out of sight. You wonder if he feels exposed now, with something as much like his childhood in front of audiences and Oscar voters. “I am not a very public person. It therefore feels vulnerable. But I always felt that this story could go beyond my narrow boundaries. ”

From 21 January in cinemas in the UK and Ireland and now in US cinemas

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