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 coveted top prize on 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," said 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 – which hits theatres in November – captures the late-1960s outbreak of Northern Ireland's violent "Troubles" from the perspective of Buddy, aged 9.
At that same age, Branagh and his family moved to England to escape escalating violence that would rip apart communities along religious and nationalist fault lines for the next three decades.
The film, which combines humour with heartbreak, stars Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Caitriona Balfe and Ciaran Hinds.
Branagh has been nominated for five Oscars over his career, but never won. Next year's Academy Awards take place on Sunday, March 27.
The last nine winners of Tiff's 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 such as Canadian drama Scarborough and The Power of the Dog, a dark Western from director Jane Campion, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
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 iterations.
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 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 Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.
Below are all the winners at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival:
- PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARD: Belfast, directed by Kenneth Branagh
- PEOPLE’S CHOICE DOCUMENTARY AWARD: The Rescue, directed by E Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
- PEOPLE’S CHOICE MIDNIGHT MADNESS AWARD: Titane, directed by Julia Ducournau
- TIFF TRIBUTE ACTOR AWARDS: Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
- SPECIAL TRIBUTE AWARD: Dionne Warwick for Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over
- TIFF EBERT DIRECTOR AWARD: Denis Villeneuve for Dune
- TIFF EMERGING TALENT AWARD: Danis Goulet for Night Raiders
- PLATFORM PRIZE: Yuni, directed by Kamila Andini
- JEFF SKOLL AWARD IN IMPACT MEDIA: Alanis Obomsawin
- SHAWN MENDES FOUNDATION CHANGEMAKER AWARD: Scarborough, directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson
- AMPLIFY VOICES AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN FEATURE FILM: Ste Anne, directed by Rhayne Vermette
- AMPLIFY VOICES AWARD: The Gravedigger’s Wife, directed by Khadar Ayderus Ahmed and A Night of Knowing Nothing, directed by Payal Kapadia
- TIFF VARIETY ARTISAN AWARD: Cinematographer Ari Wegner for The Power of the Dog
- IMDbPRO SHORT CUTS AWARD FOR BEST FILM: Displaced, directed by Samir Karahoda
- IMDbPRO SHORT CUTS AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN FILM: Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice, directed by Zacharias Kunuk
- IMDbPRO SHORT CUTS SHARE HER JOURNEY AWARD: Astel, directed by Ramata-Toulaye Sy
– Additional reporting by AFP