Belfast and Yuni Top Toronto Awards

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021)

We’ll get to the awards presented by juries and critics’ groups in Toronto in a bit, but as the forty-sixth edition wrapped over the weekend, the big story was Belfast. The festival’s in-person and virtual attendees voted to give Kenneth Branagh’s eighteenth feature as a director the People’s Choice award. Recent winners of the coveted prize include Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), so it has a fairly solid record of giving films a propulsive launch into awards season.

Shot for the most part in black and white by frequent Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos, Belfast is set in 1969. In August, tensions broke out on the streets between mostly Protestant unionists who aimed to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and primarily Catholic nationalists who wanted the country to join a united Ireland. The riots signaled the beginning of the thirty years of violence that would become known as the Troubles.

Nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is very much a stand-in for Branagh, whose family left Belfast for England when he was the same age. Buddy’s Protestant family—Ma and Pa (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds)—has always gotten along just fine with their Catholic neighbors. But a Protestant rabble-rouser (Colin Morgan) pressures Pa into joining his gang.

Belfast is “a memory piece, evoking a specific time, place, and political crisis in a way that is indelibly, achingly personal,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “And it is also exactly the kind of movie that Oscars voters are likely to respond to and reward at this very moment. We aren’t saying Belfast has been designed to win awards—there’s way too much of Branagh’s blood on the table for that. But its mix of gravitas, sentimentality, salty wit, tragedy, and roman à clef storytelling is most definitely Academy catnip.”

On Twitter, Slate’s Sam Adams puts it this way: “Belfast is lovely and backwards-looking and has super-hot leads and is political in a studiously apolitical way and it won the audience award at TIFF 2021, so yeah, best picture definitely seems like a possibility.” As with every Oscar frontrunner, Belfast has its detractors. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich argues that Branagh “opts for romanticism over realism at every turn. Here is a movie that wants to feel like a Movie, and that artificially sweetened tone helps mitigate the fact that its protagonist appears to live on a studio backlot.”

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