So now it begins, the busiest North American film festival on the planet. The first weekend is where it all happens: the biggest stars, the biggest films and the studios run overtime with press junkets, screenings and interviews. Day One was more tiring than usual since I chose to get an all-night red eye from Los Angeles, arriving in sunny Toronto at 6 am. No sleep, just enough time to check in, and begin with my first screening here of Girl with a Pearl Earring, a speculative account of the life of Griet, a 16-year-old girl who appears in Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same title.
Set in 17th century Holland, Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is employed by Vermeer (Colin Firth) as a housemaid to care for his six children, his jealous pregnant wife and his uncommunicative mother-in-law. Tensions arise when Vermeer’s wife suspects intimacy between her husband and the girl, and climax when she discovers that Griet borrowed her precious pearl earrings to sit for the now famous portrait. Perhaps not the ideal film to sit through having had less than two hours sleep, Girl is a leisurely paced but seductive period piece, glorious on the eye, and a dazzling in its subtle tone. It’s quite the year for the beautiful Johansson, whose performance here is graced with intricacy and maturity. She emits much with little dialogue, encapsulating a portrait of repression desperate for her own inner freedom, and the actress communicates those feelings with skill and depth. She is a major star-on-the-rise. Firth is equally magnificent as the tortured painter. Breathtaking to look at, Girl with Pearl Earrings is a fascinating and remarkable tale, beautifully crafted by first-timer Peter Webber.
After a brief break, it was time to check out the vastly different A Human Stain, receiving its North American premiere at Toronto. Based on Phillip Roth’s popular novel and directed by veteran Robert Benton, Human Stain is a multi-faceted comment on racism, humanity and sexual longing. The film tells of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a distinguished professor at a prestigious New England college whose professional life is shattered by allegations of racism and whose personal life is infected with the cancer of a lie he has been living for fifty years. His career and reputation in ruin, Silk begins a dynamic resurrection through two new relationships: one, a friendship with the writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) whom he intrigues with his story, the other a scandalous affair with a young woman (Nicole Kidman). Benton treats the complex material with a certain elegance and cinematic depth, and delivers us a complex, sexy, wonderfully acted drama. Again, Kidman delights in giving audiences a different side to her immeasurable talents. Vulnerable, incredibly sexy, luminous and heartbreaking, Kidman is wonderful to watch as she creates an enigmatic sexual being. Hopkins is impressive, as usual, though his casting as a Jewish professor is difficult to buy given his obvious Welshness. Yet, that doesn’t detract from another Oscar worthy performance, in this startling, fascinating and erotic tale of second beginnings and love.
Finally tonight, Underworld, not one of the better films at this, or any other, Festival. Set in the secret nocturnal and supernatural world of vampires and werewolves, two groups that have been at war for centuries, this is the story of a romance between a female vampire warrior, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), who’s famous for her strength and werewolf-hunting prowess, and a peace-loving human, Michael (Scott Speedman), who wants to end the war. A fascinating take on the genre, it fails in its execution. An over-bloated series of intensely violent and gory exchanges, Underworld lacks any sens of character, or forb that matter, any sense. It’s a wildly confusing labyrinth of set pieces, visually stylish to be sure, but it’s a film that never really goes anywhere. Horror fans might appreciate its gothic roots, but the classic vampires and werewolves, go around shooting each other with gay abandon and for no clear purpose. Both leads are set adrift by a weak script and have little to do, though Beckinsale looks a sight in black latex. On the plus side, the film is visually striking, with its neutral colour palette the perfect tone for the film’s archetypal character types. What the film unfortunately lacks is a clear sense of narrative cohesion, but as I always say, they can’t all be Shakespeare, though Underworld does try.
DAY 2: Hopkins, Kidman and some Bright Young Things.
Today was the first of the weekend’s interview schedule; so only had time to fit in one screening. The day started off with a closer look at The Human Stain. Spoke to an unusually candid Anthony Hopkins, who talked about his own second chances at life, akin to his latest character, and was more personal and open than I’ve seen him, having interviewed him a number of times over the years. Hopkins also talked about his next project, Proof, and squashed future Hannibal rumours by declaring unequivocally, that there are no Hannibal Lector films on the horizon, at least any starring Hopkins. You heard it here first, folks. Don’t forget to check out the interview, which will run just prior to the film’s October 3 release date in the US. Kidman decided against doing the morning round of interviews, but at least she didn’t cancel Toronto as she did Venice. Instead, the always-radiant 36-year old chose to do a small press conference, 8 hours after the morning junket. Consistently open, funny and intelligent, the press conference, Kidman talked about Dogville, Stepford Wives and much more. Watch out for my Kidman story next week.
In between two superstars, I had the chance to check out a film that restored my faith in movies: Stephen Fry’s directorial debut Bright Young Things, Based on Evelyn Waugh’s biting satire Vile Bodies, the film is a sardonic and wry exploration of the shallowness of pre-war high society, particularly amongst the young and restless of the time. The film begins with a glorious recreation of a debauched party for the young glitterati of London in the late 30s. Filled with scandal for the time such as overt homosexuality and drug taking, it’s not long before the press photographers are on the trail of the sordid goings-on. At the centre of the party is Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), a sophisticate in name and standing but unfortunately one without two pennies to rub together.
When his novel is confiscated by the customs on the grounds of being a threat to society’s morals, young Adam finds himself in a pickle: an irate publisher (Dan Aykroyd), a needy girlfriend (Emily Mortimer) and a hectic social lifestyle to fund. As the paparazzi and gossip culture becomes more and more prevalent he has no option but to turn spy and report for one of the social columns.
Thus we are launched into a beautifully portrayed version of a London on the verge of losing its innocence. From its visually audacious opening, to its collage of spoilt, nouveau riche and comically self-aware characters, Fry’s magnificent and richly textured film, is a dazzlingly original triumph, an evocative look at Britain’s class-obsessed society, peopled by a hollow lot whose innate awakening and tragedy is burgeoning with the advent of war. Featuring an array of stunning performances from newcomers and seasoned pros alike, Bright Young Things is so classically British, that Americans find the whole film befuddling, while the rest of the world ought to stand up and cheer, at this deliciously exhilarating and hilarious work. A truly stunning debut from the comic genius of Stephen Fry.
Immediately following the screening, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Fry, who talked about the film, his career, and whether or not he himself would have been a bright young thing, if he had been around during the thirties.
Next stop, a rare interview with publicity-shy Yaphet Kotto, in town for the world premiere of Alien. Yes, Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic has been remastered and features additional scenes, a true director’s cut. Kotto, who told me he has never had a publicist, has refused to do press because of the work, but was keen to talk about the all-new cut of Alien, which Fox releases in the US on Halloween. The effusive actor promises more scares this time around. Watch out for the full interview next month.
DAY 3. – VAMPIRES, DEATH, HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS AND THE ULTIMATE ROMANTIC COMEDY.
A busy day today from star interviews to two of the most varied films screening at this Festival. Interviews began with a closer look at Out of Time. Denzel Washington was in rare form talking about the film, getting older, Oscars and future projects, and the beautiful Eva Mendes was there also talking enthusiastically about Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Then it was time to rush across the road to interview Kate Beckinsale for Underworld. Her candidness and sense of humour were great, and apparently, she confessed, she never wears underwear. You heard it here first.
After a brief break, a one-on-one chat with a true legend: Omar Sharif, here in town to talk about Monsieur Ibrahim, but of course we discussed Lawrence, Zhivago and gambling. Sharif also announced that his next film would re-team him with Lawrence’s Peter O’Toole. Here was a charming movie star with elegance to boot, and a rare treat. From Sharif to the AIDS-themed The Event, which I initially saw at Sundance. A memorable and heartbreaking film of a dying man who wants to die his way and with dignity. Missed these folks at Sundance, but today caught up with Parker Posey, Olympia Dukakis and director Thom Fitzgerald.
Interviews ended for the day, and it was off to the movies, and beginning with the extraordinary 21 Grams. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 21 Grams refers to one’s diminished physical state at the time of death. In this hypnotic and compelling drama, a freak accident brings together a critically ill mathematician (Sean Penn), a grieving mother (Naomi Watts) and a born-again ex-con (Benicio Del Toro). Here is a film that explores the nature of death in a human, poignant and richly powerful manner. But it also represents some of the year’s most stunning performances, especially Watts, who delivers a tour-de-force performance that ranks it as the best female performance of the year, and won worthy of serious Oscar consideration. Here she is luminous, vulnerable, passionate, emotive and touching. It’s a graceful, raw and exciting piece of acting, the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages. For Watts alone, 21 Grams is a cinematic journey well worth taking.
Saving the best to last and the perfect way to end the day, is Love Actually, marking the directorial debut of the ingenious Richard Curtis. Toronto screened the film as a work-in-progress, and aren’t we glad they did! This ensemble comedy tells ten separate (but intertwining) stories of love in London (with a small portion set in France), leading up to a big climax on Christmas Eve. One of the threads follows the brand new (unmarried) Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) of the United Kingdom, who on his first day in 10 Downing Street falls in love with the girl (Martine McCutcheon) who brings him his tea (Emma Thompson plays his sister; Alan Rickman plays her husband who falls for his secretary). Another story follows the relationship between a widowed stepfather (Liam Neeson) and his young stepson, who ends up giving the youngster love advice. Then there’s the writer [Colin Firth] who falls in love with his Italian housekeeper.
We live in cynical times, and so a film such as Love Actually, a grown up film for adults, is a rarity and a welcome surprise. Curtis has written a perfect screenplay, one that combines the comic irreverence we know so well, with finely etched characters who possess a flawed humanity. As deliriously funny this film is at times, it remains a moving and even heartbreaking tale of the pangs of love, loss, requited and unrequited love, and deep friendships. We see here the genuine love between men and women, fathers and sons, close friends, lusty betrayals, and in fact a microcosm of human relationships, with all their idiosyncrasies. We are human, and maestro Curtis has crafted the most perfect human comedy in years, with performances to match, from Hugh Grant’s delightful Prime Minister, to a perfectly controlled and magnificent performance by Emma Thompson. Multi-textured with a variety of tones that encapsulate human behaviour in all its diversity, Love Actually is a wonderful, comic and poetic work, stylishly crafted, and a joy to watch and listen to. This Christmas, Loved Actually is the perfect end-of-year film, and the most exquisite romantic comedy seen in a decade. And on that note, it’s good night till another bracing day of Festival madness.
– PAUL FISCHER