Branagh's Belfast boosts Oscars hopes with Toronto prize

Kenneth Branagh's latest and deeply personal dramedy Belfast opens in November.
Kenneth Branagh's latest and deeply personal dramedy Belfast opens in November.PHOTO: AFP

OTTAWA (AFP) - Belfast, Kenneth Branagh's black-and-white homage to the hometown he fled as a child, raised its profile as an early Oscar frontrunner by winning the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) coveted top prize on Saturday (Sept 18).

Voted for by audiences, the People's Choice Award at North America's biggest film festival has become an increasingly accurate Oscars bellwether, predicting eventual best picture winners such as last year's Nomadland.

"Our first showing of Belfast at TIFF was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire career," Branagh said via video message.

"I am thrilled, I am humbled and I'm deeply grateful," added the veteran British actor-director, 60, whose film career has ranged from Shakespeare to superhero film Thor across more than four decades.

Branagh's latest, deeply personal dramedy Belfast - which opens in November - captures the late-1960s outbreak of Northern Ireland's violent Troubles from the perspective of Buddy, a nine-year-old boy.

At that same age, Branagh and his family moved to England to escape escalating violence that for the next three decades would rip apart communities along religious and nationalist fault lines.

The film - which combines humour with heartbreak - stars Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Caitriona Balfe and Ciaran Hinds.

Branagh has been nominated for five Oscars but never won. Next year's Academy Awards take place March 27.

The last nine winners of the Toronto People's Choice Awards were all nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with three of those winning the Oscar, including 2019's surprise victor Green Book. 12 Years a Slave (2013), The King's Speech (2010) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) all began their journeys to Oscar glory with the Toronto prize.

Belfast fended off runners-up including Canadian drama Scarborough and The Power Of The Dog, a dark Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch from director Jane Campion.

After taking place mainly online last year, TIFF returned in-person for 2021, albeit with reduced audience capacities, fewer stars on the red carpets and a smaller selection of movies than pre-pandemic editions.

At Saturday's ceremony, TIFF also handed career achievement awards to actors Cumberbatch and Jessica Chastain, as well as Denis Villeneuve.

A handful of other films that played at Toronto and are seen as awards contenders were not eligible for Saturday's prize, including the Princess Diana biopic Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart, and Villeneuve's sci-fi epic Dune.

The Toronto festival's top documentary prize went to The Rescue, a film recounting the rescue of a Thai boys' soccer team from a flooded cave in 2018, from Oscar-winning Free Solo directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.