A biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch as an ingenious British codebreaker and computer-science pioneer Alan Turing has won the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Director Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game claimed the coveted Grolsch People's Choice Award at a Sunday morning brunch, held annually to mark the end of the 11-day movie marathon.
The film, which also stars Oscar nominee Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, beat out first runner-up Learning to Drive"— a dramedy about the unlikely friendship between Patricia Clarkson's newly separated book editor and her driving instructor, played by Ben Kingsley — and second runner-up St. Vincent, which stars Bill Murray as the cantankerous caretaker of a young boy.
The crowd-pleasing The Imitation Game, however, simply proved too compelling in a tough-to-predict year in which there was no clear front-runner for the festival's top award.
"It's a terrific story and it's a story that's not that well-known," festival artistic director Cameron Bailey said of the winning film following the announcement.
"You've got terrific direction — Morten Tyldum was here before with Headhunters — and one of the best actors and stars in the world right now in Benedict Cumberbatch."
Surely, The Imitation Game has now solidified its position in a rapidly developing Oscar race.
After all, three of the past six People's Choice Award winners have gone on to win best picture, including The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and last year's victor, 12 Years a Slave.
And Cumberbatch, the lanky and incisively articulate Brit best-known for starring on Sherlock, certainly seemed to be in the midst of a moment at this year's festival. A year after the 38-year-old unveiled three separate films at the Toronto festival (including 12 Years a Slave, in which he had a small role), he was one of the most in-demand stars here.
Frenzied fans packed the streets surrounding the premiere of The Imitation Game while Cumberbatch signed autographs and posed for selfies.
But it was the real-life character he portrayed who seemed to deeply resonate with audiences, said Bailey.
Aside from being a pivotal figure in bringing the Second World War to an end, Turing made endlessly innovative contributions to the future of personal computing. The story, of course, featured a personal wrinkle: Turing tried to conceal his sexual orientation but was ultimately prosecuted for homosexuality (then a crime) in 1952, before dying two years later.
"(This is) a man whose mind was instrumental in helping to end the Second World War early, who is one of the fathers of the computers that we all use today, and we don't know much about him," Bailey offered.
"The fact that he had to suffer as a result of his sexual orientation also is a drama that I think deserves to be told. This is a story with a lot of great elements to it."
Added Laurie May, co-president of the film's distributor Elevation Pictures: "He invented computers and he saved the world and he was an underdog. You put those elements together on film and execute it the way it was executed, and of course audiences are going to respond."
It was a Toronto International Film Festival that many have agreed enjoyed strong depth but perhaps no Oscar-lock standouts on par with last year's pillars 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Still, many entries won widespread critical acclaim and, in the process, revved the engine for the drive to award season.
And, looking back, this was the Year of the Biopic.
Reese Witherspoon shed all vanity as a woman seeking direction in a 1,000-mile hike in Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallee's adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, Timothy Spall mesmerized as 18th century painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's visually arresting Mr. Turner, and Eddie Redmayne dissolved into a physically onerous performance as ALS-inflected physics genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
Meanwhile the entire principal cast of Foxcatcher — Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo — earned raves, particularly a Carell buried under a cloak of prosthetics-enhanced menace to portray eccentric multimillionaire John du Pont.
Those films were united to some extent by the fact that their stories weren't necessarily intimately familiar to audiences, Bailey noted.
"There are always great biopics that are made every year but I think what we really see in the biopics we had at the festival are strong stories that aren't well-known," he said.
In other award categories, Hajooj Kuka's Beats of the Antonov — about Sudanese farmers who celebrate their heritage while enduring a government bombing campaign — won the audience documentary award, Maxime Giroux's "Felix and Meira" won the Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film and Jeffrey St. Jules won the prize for best first Canadian feature film for Bang Bang Baby.
Meanwhile, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement's What We Do in the Shadows took the prize for the best entry into the festival's popular Midnight Madness program.
"We're very pleased to have the award ... we're very flattered," said Clement, the seven-time Emmy-nominated star of Flight of the Conchords, Muppets Most Wanted and the Rio series.
"There was free brunch involved, including dessert. ... Very nice. I don't usually eat meat that early in the day."
This was a year in which the Toronto film festival made headlines for a new policy on world premieres, insisting that only films screening for the first time in North America could be featured in the fest's first four days. The Imitation Game, in fact, screened just days before at Colorado's Telluride Film Festival so it screened on the fifth day of Toronto's film extravaganza.
Looking back, Bailey said Sunday what he said all along — that the policy didn't have any effect on the strength of the festival.
"I think the whole festival, the whole 11 days, worked really well," he said. "We had 143 world premieres at the film festival this year. We got the films we wanted to get here, and I think we were able to balance the schedule for people to have a little bit more time to see more films throughout the 11 days."