Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast wins Toronto People’s Choice Award

The award is often a harbinger for greater honours at the Oscars.

Kenneth Branagh on the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival
Kenneth Branagh on the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival

Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast – a black-and-white family drama about the city amid the tumult of the late 1960s – on Saturday won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, a telling indicator of Academy Awards chances.

The event’s top honour, voted by festivalgoers, is widely viewed as an Oscar harbinger. The previous nine winners have all gone on to secure a best-picture Oscar nomination, as have 13 of the last 14 People’s Choice prize winners. Those include best-picture winners 12 Years a Slave, Green Book and last year’s pick, Nomadland.

Belfast, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, draws from Branagh’s own childhood in the city. The film, which stars Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, will be released on November 12 by Focus Features.

The awards wrapped up a muted Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) that has unspooled over the past 10 days. Usually one of the world’s largest movie showcases, this year’s TIFF was a scaled-down pandemic hybrid, taking place in both socially distanced screenings and virtually online. The autumn’s other major festivals — in Venice; Telluride, Colorado; and New York — have opted for fully in-person editions.

Canada TIFF Belfast
Director Kenneth Branagh, right, and actor Jamie Dornan at TIFF (Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP)

But it was also a much more robust TIFF than last year’s almost entirely virtual festival. The slate of about 100 feature films was down from Toronto’s typical 250 movies but included many of the autumn’s most anticipated films — including Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi spectacle Dune, Jane Campion’s Western melodrama The Power of the Dog, and Pablo Larrain’s Princess Diana biopic Spencer.

Both Dune and Spencer did not make themselves eligible for the People’s Choice Award, which required both an in-person screening and availability on the festival digital portal. Normally, festival volunteers dispense ballots to moviegoers on their way out of screenings. This year, because of the pandemic, all voting was conducted online.

In a presentation broadcast in Canada and streamed online globally, other awards included the platform prize — an award chosen by a jury headed by actor Riz Ahmed — going to Indonesian director Kamila Andini’s Yuni, a coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl approaching the prospect of an arranged marriage.

The festival said the closest competitors to Belfast in terms of votes were Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s Scarborough, the first runner up, which follows three children over the course of one school year in the Toronto neighbourhood, and second runner-up The Power of the Dog.

The People’s Choice award for documentary went to E Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s The Rescue, an account of the 2018 mission to rescue the trapped youth soccer team from Thailand’s Tham Luang cave.

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