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Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ boosts Oscars hopes with Toronto prize

By AFP - Sep 21,2021 - Last updated at Sep 21,2021

OTTAWA — “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 film festival’s coveted top prize Saturday.

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 told the Toronto International Film Festival ceremony 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 hits theaters 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’ football team from a flooded cave in 2018, from Oscar-winning “Free Solo” directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.

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