At a wobbly time in a 9-year-old’s life, his grandmother has some key words.
“You’ll always be Buddy from Belfast,” she says, “no matter where you go and what you become.”
That line – from Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographic film “Belfast” (shown here) – rings true. And we have to marvel at just what the kid did become.
He became a president, a prime minister and a king. He led armies, solved mysteries, explored Antarctica and created a monster. And two opposite Branagh films are in theaters:
–“Belfast,” which he wrote and directed, but doesn’t act in. It’s been lingering in theaters, waiting for March 27, when it’s up for seven Academy Awards, including three for Branagh – best picture, director and original script.
— “Death on the Nile,” which he directed and stars in.
Here are films that are total opposite. “Belfast” is black-and-white, subtle and quietly moving. “Nile” is bright and colorful; a few plot points don’t quite add up, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.
And both seem to fit the kid we see in the movie. We might think of Branagh as a Shakespearean who happens to make movies, but “Belfast” reminds us what came first.
There, we see Buddy at the movies (shown here), awed by the wonders of a flying car in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and of Raquel Welch in “One Million Years, B.C.” We see him watching TV, savoring the cowboy drama of “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
In real life, as in the film, Branagh’s dad was a plumber and a joiner. (Those were blue-scholar skills that never reached the son. Branagh once told us about his disastrous attempt to build a bench.) And in real life and the film, the boy was 9 when his family move to England, for a better job and less violence.
The film shows Buddy worried that “they won’t understand us,” with the Irish accent. In real life, Branagh’s solution was to master a classical accent. When Queen Elizabeth visited the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Branagh, 20, was the one chosen to deliver Hamlet’s classic soliloquy.
This was the Shakespearean many filmgoers first discovered. “Henry V” brought him Academy Award nominations both as the director and the star.
But he’s not just an actor with a camera; he has absorbed the art of filmmaking.
In “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile,” Branagh is not a convincing Hercule Poirot. In both films, however, he showed that Agatha Christie mysteries can be richly cinematic. At times – “Thor,” “Artemis Fowl,” the gorgeous “Cinderella” – he’s even been hired strictly as a director.
He does keep returning to his Shakespearean roots. On film, he’s been Henry and Hamlet, Benedick and Berowne, Iago and Macbeth and Shakespeare himself. He’s also been President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and explorer Ernest Shackleton. He’s been a colonel, a commander, a general and Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
He’s become many things – while, apparently, continuing to be Buddy from Belfast.