Entertainment

Family drama Belfast wins Oscar bellwether People's Choice prize at Toronto International Film Festival

British star Kenneth Branagh's "deeply personal" directorial effort, Belfast, has picked up awards season momentum after winning the People's Choice prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Festival marked a return to red carpets with stars, more indoor venues and a larger offering of films

Kenneth Branagh attends the Belfast premiere during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 12. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

British star Kenneth Branagh's "deeply personal" directorial effort, Belfast, has picked up awards season momentum after winning the People's Choice prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The family drama inspired by his own childhood in Belfast, Ireland, won the honour during Saturday's TIFF Tribute Awards broadcast on CTV, which ended 10 days of pandemic-tailored in-person screenings and digital at-home viewing.

Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and Judi Dench star in the black-and-white coming-of-age tale, set amid the tumult of late-1960s Northern Ireland.

Branagh, who's also an esteemed actor with an Oscar-nominated turn in Henry V, said he was "deeply grateful" for the prize chosen through online votes.

TIFF showing a career highlight, Branagh says

"Our first showing of Belfast at TIFF was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire career," the writer-director said in a pre-recorded video in the show, which also had a live element with masked attendees at a soiree with TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey.

"That so many film lovers connected with Belfast so profoundly was absolutely overwhelming to myself and Jamie Dornan, and we talked about it long into a memorable night of laughter and tears in your great city."

The People's Choice prize has been seen as a predictor of Academy Award success.

Last year's winner, the road drama Nomadland, won the best-picture Oscar.

Dune among films not eligible for prize

Other previous People's Choice winners that have nabbed best picture include Green Book12 Years a SlaveThe King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.

This year's People's Choice race had a caveat, though: films that didn't screen on the festival's digital site were not eligible for the prize, including buzzy titles Spencer and Dune.

Actor Rebecca Ferguson attends the Dune premiere during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Organizers said votes for People's Choice were tallied Saturday morning.

The first runner-up was Canadian drama Scarborough, directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson and based on Toronto author Catherine Hernandez's award-winning 2017 novel about the city's eastern suburb. The film also took the Shawn Mendes Foundation's Changemaker Award, which comes with a $10,000 cash prize.

Ste. Anne wins best Canadian film

The second runner-up for People's Choice was Jane Campion's wild west drama The Power of the Dog, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a Montana ranch owner.

Cumberbatch was among the honourees at the Tribute Awards, which also announced Yuni by Indonesian filmmaker Kamila Andini as the winner of the Platform award, chosen by an international jury headed by acclaimed Riz Ahmed.

Director Rhayne Vermette speaks onstage at the Ste. Anne photo call during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sept. 13. (Juanito Aguil/Getty Images)

Other winners announced by TIFF after Saturday's broadcast included Ste. Anne, the debut feature by Manitoba's Rhayne Vermette, described as an "examination of home by way of places and people." It took the $10,000 Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film.

The Rescue by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, about a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave in summer 2018, won the People's Choice Documentary Award.

Return to red carpets

Launched in 2019, the Tribute Awards honour film industry talent and raise funds for TIFF's year-round programs.

This year's show also honoured actor Jessica Chastain, singer Dionne Warwick, filmmakers Denis Villeneuve, Alanis Obomsawin and Danis Goulet, and cinematographer Ari Wegner.

All of the honourees had projects at TIFF and attended in person, except for Wegner.

Stars who presented in the broadcast included Sigourney Weaver, Shamier Anderson, Kirsten Dunst, Rebecca Ferguson, Gladys Knight, Eva Longoria, David Oyelowo and Kiefer Sutherland.

Actor Jessica Chastain attends The Eyes Of Tammy Faye premiere during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on Sept. 12. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

This year's festival marked a return to red carpets with stars, more indoor venues and a larger offering of films than last year's largely digital event.

It still wasn't a typical TIFF, though, with theatres operating at 50 per cent capacity and COVID-19 protocols including mask-wearing and proof of either full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

Predicting which film might win People's Choice was trickier without the usual audience chit-chat and lounging at venues, but strong responses on social media and in theatres helped, said Bailey.

"There was that amplified reaction because people were just so glad to be in a movie theatre again," he said in an interview. "But sometimes something just goes up that extra level, and there have been a few films this year where it felt like people were just rhapsodic in their reaction and were feeling something together."

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