"King's Speech" wins top Toronto film fest prize

TORONTO (Reuters) - “The King’s Speech” won the top award at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, giving the Tom Hooper-directed film some early momentum heading into Oscar awards season.

Actors Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush (back) attend a news conference to promote the film "The King's Speech" during the 35th Toronto International Film Festival September 11, 2010. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill

The film, which stars Colin Firth as Britain’s reluctant King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, captured the festival’s People’s Choice award.

Other films that won that prize -- “American Beauty,” “Crash,” and “Slumdog Millionaire” -- later walked off with best picture Oscars.

In addition to making a splash with Toronto audiences, “King’s Speech” has been roundly praised by critics.

Firth’s King George, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, is initially reluctant to ascend to the crown following the abdication of his brother Edward VIII. Plagued by a nervous stammer, he enlists the help of a speech therapist and is eventually able to lead the country into World War II.

“I am so proud that people responded to the film in such a positive way,” director Tom Hooper, who was not in Toronto, said in a statement read at a festival awards luncheon.

Runner-up for the prize was the Justin Chadwick-directed film “The First Grader,” which tells the story of an illiterate man in his eighties who tries to enlist in a Kenyan primary school to take advantage of government-sponsored education.

The 35th edition of the festival was notable for the long-awaited opening of the $200 million (128 million pound) Bell Lightbox complex, the first permanent home for the festival.

It also featured a quicker pace of deal-making than last year, when the independent film industry was in the depths of a slump brought on by a combination of the credit crisis and a glut of films produced over the last few years.

“It was a very strong year for sales,” festival co-director Cameron Bailey said. “We were very pleased to see that the film industry seems to be coming back in terms of distributors buying films.”

As of Friday, more than 20 films had reached distribution deals during the festival, according to the festival press office.

Critics’ awards were presented to “Beautiful Boy”, directed by Shawn Ku, about a married couple dealing with news that their son was involved in a mass shooting at a college, and Pierre Thoretton’s “L’Amour Fou.”

The audience award for top documentary went to Sturla Gunnarsson’s “Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie,” about Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki.

Editing by Stacey Joyce