TIFF2016: Women lead the way at Toronto fest

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – The big talking point at the 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival, which ended Sunday, was the sheer number of films that featured high-profile performances by women.

Around 400 titles were screened at the shindig, which kicks off the awards season and shines a light on what will be in cinemas and home screens over the coming months. British actresses among those acclaimed for their performances include Gemma Arterton, Sally Hawkins, Rosamund Pike, and Rachel Weisz, along with Amy Adams, Brie Larson, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman, Hailee Steinfeld, Kristen Stewart and Emma Stone.

Always a key indicator of Academy Award potential, the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award this year went to an energetic modern musical titled “La La Land”, which Lionsgate will release in U.K. cinemas on Jan. 13. It will screen first at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 7.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), it stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress (pictured top) as they try to make it in Hollywood. Stone was named best actress for the film at this year’s Venice International Film Festival and already she is a favourite for an Oscar nomination.

Natalie Portman (pictured below) is tipped to provide awards competition for her observant performance in the title role of “Jackie”, from Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“No”), which follows Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The film won the Platform Prize at TIFF and Fox Searchlight acquired it for U.S. distribution with U.K. release details still to be announced.

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Amy Adams was one of several actresses who appeared in more than one film at the festival but she garnered the most praise for Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and both films should place her in awards contention.

“Nocturnal Animals” offers two films in one as Adams plays a lonely art gallery curator with a troubled marriage in Los Angeles who reads a noirish novel by her former husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) that she sees as a movie. Universal is set to release it in the U.K. on Nov. 4.

In the acclaimed science-fiction thriller “Arrival” (pictured below), she plays a gifted linguist who tries to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings who land on Earth. It will screen on Oct. 10 at the BFI London Film Festival with a release by Entertainment One set tentatively for Nov. 11.

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The London Film Festival kicks off on Oct. 5 with Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom”, which was received warmly at TIFF. Starring Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo, it’s the true story of the Forties romance between a black African Prince and a white English typist and the perils they face in both their countries, especially from the bigoted representatives of British imperialism. It reaches U.K. cinemas on Nov. 25 from 20th Century Fox.

Also seen at TIFF, Gemma Arterton stars in a zombie picture titled “The Girl With All the Gifts”, about a young girl who is immune to a strain that turns humans into the undead. It’s out in U.K. cinemas on Sept. 23 from Warner Bros.

The British actress garnered much for attention for Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest”, a crowd-pleasing British World War II comedy co-starring Bill Nighy and Sam Claflin (pictured with Arterton below) that tells of a hapless group of filmmakers at work on a morale-boosting movie after Dunkirk. It will screen at the London Film Festival on Oct. 13 with UK release by Lionsgate set for Feb. 19.

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Oscar-winner Brie Larson (“Room”) stars in British director Ben Wheatley’s Seventies gangland shoot-em-up “Free Fire” co-starring Cillian Murphy (“Peaky Blinders”) and Armie Hammer. The film won the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award, a sidebar of the festival that shows extreme movies. It will screen at the London Film Festival on Oct. 16 with U.K. release by StudioCanal set for March 31 next year.

Rooney Mara co-stars with Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel in a true-life drama titled “Lion”, which earned great applause at TIFF.  Directed by Garth Brooks, it tells the incredible true story of a 5 year-old Indian boy named Saroo who gets lost and ends up 1000 miles away from his impoverished family, lands in an orphanage and is adopted by a couple in Australia. The Weinstein Company will handle U.S. release on Nov. 25 with U.K. distribution details yet to be announced.

Mara also stars in “The Secret Scripture”, directed by Jim Sheridan (“In the Name of the Father”), as a woman who spends a long time in an Irish mental hospital and tells all in a diary she reveals as an older woman (played by Vanessa Redgrave). It will screen on Oct. 7 at the London Film Festival with distribution details still to come.

“The Twilight Saga” star Kristen Stewart has the lead in the ghost story “Personal Shopper”, which screened at TIFF following its triumph for Olivier Assayas as best director at the Festival de Cannes. It screens at the London Film Festival on Oct. 10 with U.K. distribution and release dates not yet available.

Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) stars in Kelly Freemont Craig’s warmly received festival closer “The Edge of Seventeen”. Sony Pictures has worldwide rights with U.K. details still to come.

Sally Hawkins plays a humble Nova Scotia woman who becomes an acclaimed artist despite crippling arthritis in Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie”, co-starring Ethan Hawke. It received generally good reviews at TIFF but there is no news on a U.K. release yet.

Elsewhere in Toronto, Western remake “The Magnificent Seven” starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, received a lot of attention. MGM and Sony release it in the U.K. on Sept. 23.

TIFF photo: Getty Images

This story appears in Cue Entertainment

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Rob Reiner’s ‘LBJ’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Rob Reiner’s “LBJ” is an absorbing drama about President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first days in office that is made memorable by a skillful and insightful performance by Woody Harrelson.

The film had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival today but distribution details have yet to be announced.

“LBJ” follows Johnson from when he takes the oath of office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the day he tells Congress that he will pursue the fallen leader’s goals on civil rights.

There are flashbacks to the Democratic Party nomination race between LBJ and JFK and Reiner strings out the fateful parade through Dallas over several scenes before gunfire changes everything.

Reiner also employs television footage from the time and recreates some scenes in black-and-white to complement the fine colour work of cinematographer Barry Markowitz.

Screenwriter Joey Hartstone includes some familiar LBJ vulgarisms such as his penchant for doing his business on the toilet seat while doing the government’s business with his staff and his declaration that he would rather have an opponent “on the inside pissing out rather than outside pissing in”.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is not given much to do (although she does it well) as Lady Bird Johnson other than console and encourage her husband when he frets that people do not love him as they do JFK (Jeffrey Donovan) and Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David). Kim Allen, as Jacqueline Kennedy, has no lines at all.

LBJ’s skills as Senate Majority Leader are clear as he begs, bullies, and wheedles his way to win key votes. The film suggests that he envied JFK and came to embrace the sophisticated northerner’s quest for equal rights even though previously he had voted against such bills along with most of his southern peers.

Key conflicts in the movie are between Johnson and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who despised the Texan as crude and ignorant, and between Johnson and powerful Georgia Senator Dick Russell, who believed that to have a southerner in the White House would allow segregation to flourish.

Stahl-David, as Bobby, and Richard Jenkins, as Russell, get under the skin of their characters as much as Harrelson and their scenes together are tense and vivid. Brent Bailey conveys the tension and doubt of Kennedy’s staff in a brief scene as speechwriter Ted Sorenson.

Harrelson, whose facial resemblance to Johnson is not close even with substantial prosthetics, succeeds … as Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” … in capturing the essence of the man in his posture, his eyes and his voice.

Christopher R. DeMuri’s production design is handsome and composer Marc Shaiman provides an orchestral score that blends in cleverly whether the scene is tense, dramatic or comic, with subtle hints of the period.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK / US: TBA; Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, C. Thomas Howell, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, Joe Chrest, Kim Allen, Brent Bailey; Director: Rob Reiner; Writer: Joey Hartstone; Director of photography: Barry Markowitz; Production designer: Christopher R. DeMuri; Music: Marc Shaiman; Editor: Bob Joyce; Costumes: Dan Moore; Producers: Matthew George, Liz Glotzer, Rob Reiner, Tim White, Trevor White, Michael R. Williams; Production: Acacia Filmed Entertainment, Castle Rock Entertainment, Savvy Media Holdings, Star Thrower Entertainment; Not rated; running time 98 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Gemma Arterton in ‘Their Finest’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest” is a crowd-pleasing British World War II comedy that tells of a hapless group of filmmakers at work on a morale-boosting movie with outstanding performances by Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy (pictured).

The film will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 13 with UK release by Lionsgate set for Feb. 19.

The Danish director (“Just Like Home”, “An Education”) delivers a warm and funny picture reminiscent of Ealing Studios at its best with a winning screenplay by Gaby Chiappe, whose many television credits include “Lark Rise to Candleford”, “Vera” and “Shetland”; a fine ensemble cast and an evocative score by Oscar-winner Rachel Portman. The story is based on a novel titled “Their Finest Hour and a Half” by Lissa Evans.

Arterton is captivating as a young woman named Catrin who, in the grim days of the Blitz in 1940, applies for a job as a copy-writer only to land a position writing dialogue for a feature film about the Dunkirk evacuation that the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons in a very funny cameo) sees as vital to the war effort to boost morale and encourage the Americans to join the fight.

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Catrin, who has to deal with misogyny at home from struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston), faces even more on the production crew, especially from hotshot lead writer Tom (Sam Claflin, pictured above with Arterton). He assigns her what he calls “the slop”, which is to say the dialogue of the females in a war picture in which the men clearly are the focus of attention.

Bill Nighy is in top form as fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard, who takes the role of a drunken uncle despite his vanity, and there are splendid contributions from Claflin and Huston, and Claudia Jessie and Stephanie Hyam, who play the twins whose heroic actions in the Dunkirk crisis spark the idea of the film.

There are polished moments, too, from Rachael Stirling, as a ministry watchdog, Paul Ritter as a veteran writer, Richard E. Grant as the head of the War Office film division, Henry Goodman as an Eastern European producer, Eddie Marsan as an agent, and Helen McCrory as the agent’s sister.

With great assurance, Scherfig follows the challenges and pitfalls of filmmaking on a string budget at a time when bombs take out not only buildings but also members of the crew. As the film-within-the-film takes shape, the studio and location work makes an instructive and entertaining comparison to the finished article.

Catrin finds herself in a love triangle with wandering husband Ellis and acid-tongued screenwriter Tom while Ambrose turns out to be great help in keeping the project afloat. The ministry insists on an American hero for the film and provides one in the form of noted American fighter pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) who, of course, cannot act.

There are mishaps on location, in the studio and at home as Catrin struggles both with the script, in which she seeks to elevate the role of the female characters, and her love life, which gets out of hand. Arterton captures the woman’s allure, intelligence and anxiety in a fully rounded performance while Nighy’s canny facial expressions, body language and droll delivery of the best lines help to make the film so pleasing.

Rachel Portman’s orchestral score with piano solos enhances the comedy and the heroism and adds poignancy to the inevitable abrupt losses that war brings. The film never loses sight of the reality of what’s going on around the band of filmmakers and that adds resonance to both the romance and the humour.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: Feb. 19 2017 (Lionsgate) US: TBA (EuropaCorp); Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Rachael Sterling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Jake Lacy, Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory; Director: Lone Scherfig: Writer: Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half” by Lissa Evans; Director of photography: Sebastian Blenkov; Production designer: Alice Normington; Music: Rachel Portman; Editor: Lucia Zucchetti;; Producers: Amanda Posey, Stephen Woolley; Production: BBC Films, Film Vast, Number 9 Films, Wildgaze Films; Not rated; running time 105 minutes.

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Breaking even with Nicol Williamson

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By Ray Bennett

One afternoon in 2004 or so, I was in one of my local London pubs, The Cock and Bottle in Notting Hill. The saloon bar was empty except for me and the actor Nicol Williamson.

We sat with our pints at separate tables and I could not resist breaking the silence. “May I say hello?” I said. “Hello,” he said in his deep and distinctive midlands voice with echoes of his Scottish birth.

I said, “I saw you in ‘Rex’ at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater on Broadway in 1976.” rexHe had played Henry VIII (left) in a musical by Richard Rodgers. It opened in April and closed in June.

Williamson sighed and gave a wan smile. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Not the maestro’s best.”

The actor did not appear to be well and he clearly wished to be alone, but I said, “I enjoyed it.”

He raised his glass to me and I said, “How are you?”

Williamson thought for a moment and looked me in the eye. He said, “Breaking even.”

He died on Dec. 16, 2011, aged 75, after a two-year battle with esophageal cancer.

Many actors have been known as hell-raisers, some of them great ones, but few compared to Nicol Williamson. He blazed onto the stage in the Sixties in the West End and on Broadway and he made a few good films and lots of TV but his prickly temperament and capacity for alcohol got the best of him and his immense talent never took him to the heights he deserved.

He was a sensation in the title role of “Hamlet” and he was nominated for Tony Awards for “Inadmissible Evidence” and “Uncle Vanya” and Bafta Film Awards for  “The Bofors Gun” and the film of “Inadmissible Evidence”.

films-1968-the-bofors-gunIn the “The Bofors Gun” (1968) he plays a ferocious Irish gunner who makes life a misery for a young national serviceman played by David Warner (left). Directed by Jack Gold, it’s a gripping drama that co-stars Ian Holm and John Thaw.

Williamson is memorable as Sherlock Holmes in Herbert Ross’s “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976), with Robert Duvall as Watson, Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud, Vanessa Redgrave as Lola Devereaux and Laurence Olivier as Professor Moriarty, and as Merlin in John Boorman’s Arthurian tale “Excalibur” (1981).

My favourite performance of his is as Little John (top, right, with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn) in Richard Lester’s magnificently romantic and elegiac “Robin and Marian” (1976). Connery plays the aging outlaw just back from the crusades and always up for a fight with the authorities, especially the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Robert Shaw.

There’s a moment that defines the friendship between Robin and John and a bond that can never be broken. Hepburn as Maid Marian yearns for Robin to settle down and she asks Little John why he must fight.

Williamson eyes her tenderly and with great fondness he growls, “If you’d been mine, I would never have left.”

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Mick Jackson’s ‘Denial’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Mick Jackson’s “Denial” tells of a loudmouth who calls himself an outsider and makes offensively racist comments that he claims are jokes. No, it’s not Donald J. Trump, it’s a British writer named David Irving, who became notorious because of his views on the Holocaust.

The idea that the fact of the Holocaust needs to be defended sounds bizarre but in 1993 an American historian named Deborah Lipstadt – portrayed vividly in the film by Rachel Weisz – wrote a book titled “Denying the Holocaust” in which she explored the anti-Semitic diatribes of those who claimed it never happened. She named David Irving, who had written in praise of Adolf Hitler, as one of those and in 1996 he sued her and her publisher, Penguin, for libel in the British courts where the burden of proof is upon the defendant.

Playwright David Hare (Oscar nominee for “The Reader” and “The Hours”) adapted Lipstadt’s 2005 book, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving” for the movie, which takes the form of a courtroom drama. A trip to Krakow and Auschwitz drives home the tragic reality.

Top British solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) takes the case pro bono and assembles a legal team that includes researchers, historians and professors and a shrewd and accomplished veteran barrister named Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) who will present the case in court.

Timothy Spall, looking lean and hungry, plays Irving bravely with a kind of sympathy for a non-academic man whose need for acceptance and acclaim leads him to become so deluded. Hare uses the actual dialogue from the trial for the courtroom scenes and the snappish exchanges between Spall (as Irving represents himself) and Wilkinson enliven the proceedings considerably.

Because the outcome is well-known, there is little suspense in the film and so the satisfaction comes from watching very good actors portray fascinating characters. Weisz is all controlled energy as the American who must suffer strange British rules of court when she obviously would relish a face-to-face battle with her opponent.

Scott brings a tart authority to the lawyer while Wilkinson could attract awards attention for his insightful portrayal of a wise and decent legal eagle. Mark Gatiss, Caren Pistorious, Harriet Walter and Alex Jennings are among the sterling cast.

All the crafts are fine and Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore provides a pleasing orchestral score for a story that takes on added resonance because of the astonishing way the dangerous blither of one particular candidate for the U.S. presidency has gained so much acceptance.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Feb. 3 2017 (Entertainment One) US: Sept. 30 (Bleecker Street); Cast: Rachel Weisz, Andrew Scott, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Gatiss, Caren Pistorious, Harriet Walter, Alex Jennings; Director: Mick Jackson; Writer: David Hare, based on the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” by Deborah Libstadt; Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos; Production designer: Andrew McAlpine; Music: Howard Shore; Editor: Justine Wright; Costumes: Odile Dicks-Mireaux; Producers: Gary Foster, Russ Krasnoff; Production: Elevation, Bleecker Street, BBC Films, Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment, Participant Media, Shoebox Films; Not rated; running time 110 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Natalie Portman in ‘Jackie’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” purports to tell what Jacqueline Kennedy did in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. If the film is to be believed, the answer is: not much.

In his first English-language film, the director of the splendid political drama “No” (2012) focuses almost entirely on Natalie Portman (pictured) as the widowed First Lady and the actress does a terrific job of subduing her own beauty and personality to portray a stiff and private woman forced into the public glare.

Shot on 16mm, the film jumps back and forth in time as Jackie sits for an interview with a tame and malleable reporter (Billy Crudup) so that she can portray the Kennedy era in the terms she desires, which is to say print the legend, not the truth.

Only late in the picture do we see the assassination itself but we see the reaction to it, especially Jackie’s, and the events that are familiar from coverage at the time. Behind closed doors, Jackie is understandably traumatized as the business of government takes its course.

Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and John Carroll Lynch as LBJ appear to chafe under miscasting and Caspar Phillipson makes a bland JFK although Richard E. Grant and Greta Gerwig are fine as White House staffers.

There are disagreements over the big move out of the White House, the location of the late president’s grave and whether or not the funeral parade will mirror Abraham Lincoln’s with senior figures on foot or in a motorcade of armored vehicles.

Concern for her children is paramount and the nannies are kept busy as Jackie smokes, swigs vodka and wine, swallows pills and tries on an assortment of her celebrated dresses while Richard Burton sings the title song of “Camelot” on the stereo.

Flashbacks show the move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Jackie’s determination to redecorate in order to reflect previous occupants plus her taste for parties with various star performers. Black-and-white scenes are recreated from the famous television documentary in which she shows off the place for the first time. Composer Mica Levi fleshes out the drama with some mordant orchestral cues.

As it becomes clear that the interview with the reporter is an exercise in legend building, the desired Arthurian connection figures larger. There are several scenes in which the wonderful John Hurt is brought in as an old Irish priest to make some religious prattle bearable. Jackie asserts that she wishes she’d been just a shop girl who married an ordinary man although there’s no mention of what the Bouvier family would have thought of that.

To close, the film works hard to reinforce the notion of the Kennedy era as a magical time, and here comes Richard Burton once again to voice the sentiment, “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

More than once in the film, Jackie frets over not only JFK’s legacy but her own and Larrain includes one biting piece of irony as Jackie is driven past a department store filled with mannequins in her likeness with more being unloaded from a truck. Portman’s reaction speaks volumes.

“Jackie” made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival but no distribution details have been announced.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK, US: TBA; Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant; Director: Pablo Larrain; Writer: Noah Oppenheim; Director of photography: Stéphanie Fontaine; Production designer: Jean Rabasse; Music: Mica Levi; Editor: Sebastián Sepúlveda; Costumes: Jürgen Doering; Producers: Darren Aronofsky, Pascal Caucheteux, Scott Franklin, Art Handel, Juan de Dios Larrain, Mickey Liddell; Production: Jackie Productions, Why Not Productions; Not rated; running time 95 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Amma Asante’s ‘A United Kingdom’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” tells with wit and relish the true story of the Forties romance between a black African Prince and a white English typist and the perils they face in both their countries, especially from the bigoted representatives of British imperialism.

The film will open the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 5 ahead of general U.K. release on Nov. 25.

David Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and heir to the throne, whose uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) is regent while the young man completes his education in the U.K. with a law degree.

Rosamund Pike is Ruth Williams, a tall and willowy but shy clerk from a middle-class family, who meets and falls in love with the prince after they meet at a local dance-hall, one of the few pleasures in the post-World War II London gloom.

They are both shy and their romance, as it flourishes, is decorous in a very British way, not least because Ruth fears that her middle-class father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) will be outraged and Seretse knows that his decision to marry a white Englishwoman will cause a scandal in his homeland.

They don’t know the half of it and the film shows how they confront fear and ignorance and an enormous amount of prejudice with quiet confidence. Bechuanaland at the time was a British protectorate, which meant that white mandarins ruled on the promise of providing stability and security while a tribal council held sway over domestic affairs.

The British governors and the white community in the country are portrayed as equally obnoxious. Under the sure direction of Asante (“A Way of Life”, “Belle”), Guy Hilbert’s well-crafted screenplay makes clear the social and political pressures the couple face including the underlying politics as the British government strives to keep South Africa on board despite its move to apartheid. The supply of gold and the fear that South Africa will flee the Commonwealth and embrace Stalin’s Soviet Union make U.K. leaders ready to sell principle down the river.

Oyelowo and Pike have an electric chemistry that they display as much in quiet moments as in scenes of passion while Jack Davenport and Tom Felton give full measure to the condescending superiority embraced by the civil servants they portray.

“A United Kingdom” is a handsome and rewarding picture given an extra polish by composer Patrick Doyle, whose orchestral score captures the spirit of the times both home and away.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 25 (20th Century Fox)) US: TBA (Fox Searchlight); Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Laura Carmichael, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton; Director: Amma Asante; Writer: Guy Hilbert; Director of photography: Sam McCurdy; Production designer: Simon Bowles; Music: Patrick Doyle; Editor: Jonathan Amos; Costumes: Jenny Beavanm Anushia Nieradzik; Producers: Brunson Green, Peter Heslop, Charlie Mason, Rick McCallum, Justin Moore-Levy, David Oyelowo; Production: Film United, Harbinger Pictures, Pathé, Perfect Weekend, Yoruba Saxon Productions; Not rated; running time 111 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals”, starring Amy Adams and Jake Gylenhaal, is a handsome but fragmented drama about a woman in her 40s who feels alienated from life until a novel written by a former husband gives her hope of salvation.

The film had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and it will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 14 ahead of national release.

The designer turned filmmaker has adapted a novel called “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright for his examination of a woman named Susan Morrow (Adams) whose early artistic creativity was warped by self-doubt so that she now curates exhibitions of bizarre modern art that she regards as junk.

Her handsome second husband (Armie Hammer) leads her to believe that his business is in trouble while he dallies in New York with another woman. Her gallery colleague (Andrea Riseborough) and her gay husband (Michael Sheen) worry that she doesn’t get enough sleep and she explains that her first husband used to call her a “nocturnal animal”.

She’s drifting in high style when a package arrives from that first husband, Edward Sheffield (Gillenhaal) whom she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years, containing the draft of a novel titled “Nocturnal Animals”. As she begins to read, she projects onto the story her own interpretation of events and we see the film that she imagines.

The film switches between a series of sequences from the novel, Susan’s current life, and flashbacks to her earlier marriage. She finds the novel to be devastating but as rendered it is actually a piece of pulp fiction about a couple and their daughter who are harassed with dire consequences on a deserted road in West Texas.

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Susan casts Edward in the role of the husband, Tony, and so we see Gyllenhaal (above center) with Isla Fisher as his wife Laura and Ellie Bamber as his daughter India as they are caught up in a violent noir drama.

When three drunken rednecks run them off an isolated road, Tony proves ineffectual in defending his family and only when a complicated Texas detective, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) shows up to investigate does he gather reserves of strength.

Bobby Andes is the most interesting character in the movie, a sickly but resourceful man who might be more dangerous than the local toughs. Bobby has all the best lines and Shannon makes him so memorable that he should be in contention for major awards.

Director Ford gives Adams a mountain to climb in the opening sequence of the picture as a series of grossly obese naked women gyrate in slow motion and then lie on slabs to be scrutinized as part of an art exhibition that Susan has curated.

To win sympathy after staging such a cruel and unpleasant show means that Adams must bring all her considerable talents to bear and, of course, she does. She gives Susan more depth than there is in the script as the character reflects silently on her memories and the events of the novel. Her awards string is likely to continue.

Gyllenhaal defines two characters distinctly and while Susan sees Tony and Edward as much the same, they clearly are different men, as we see when secrets from the marriage are revealed. British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson nails the accent and posture of the louche, grinning and ever-threatening leader of the rednecks. Riseborough, Sheen, Armie Hammer (as Susan’s second husband) and Laura Linney (who has one scene as Susan’s imposing mother) add colorful cameos.

Shane Valentino’s production design is sumptuous in the elegant Los Angeles settings and all dust and poverty in the West Texas shacks while cinematographer Seamus McGarvey captures it all splendidly. Composer Abel Korzeniowski’s orchestral score gives the picture a Forties feel generally with echoes of the great detective pictures of the period.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 4 (Universal Pictures) US: Nov. 18 (Focus Features); Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aaramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen; Director, writer: Tom Ford, based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright; Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey; Production designer: Shane Valentino; Music: Abel Korzeniowski; Editor: Joan Sobel; Costumes: Arianne Phillips; Producers: Tom Ford, Robert Salemo; Production: Focus Features, Universal Pictures; Not rated; running time 115 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Garth Davis’s ‘Lion’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – “Lion” tells the incredible true story of a 5 year-old Indian boy named Saroo who gets lost and ends up 1000 miles away from his impoverished family, lands in an orphanage and is adopted by a couple in Australia.

Twenty years later, now a fine young man burdened with guilt over his great fortune, Saroo determines to find his mother and brother although he has no clear memory of where they live. It takes a very long time working with Google Earth to get enough clues to where that might be.

First-time feature director Garth Brooks delivers a sturdy and earnest account of the story with an ending that guarantees tears. He is blessed with the casting of an irresistibly charming and natural actor named Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo and the accomplished “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel when he is grown. Rooney Mara also is sympathetic as a fellow student, Lucy, who falls in love with him and Nicole Kidman gives a subtle and assured performance as a woman who would rather adopt a needy child than have one of her own.

Abhishek Bharate shines as Saroo’s caring older brother in the deeply affecting early scenes of two boys who work hard for their desperately impoverished mother (Priyanka Bose, an indelible presence). When the lads are separated, Saroo falls asleep on a train that is going out of commission and it takes him far, far away to Calcutta. The big city is full of dangers both overt and deceptive and, under Davis’s confident direction,  young Pawar makes Saroo’s precarious fate worryingly suspenseful.

When he discovers that he is to begin a new life with a benevolent couple in Tasmania (Kidman and David Wenham), the boy’s wide-eyed reaction to foreign objects such as an airplane, a television screen and a boat is captivating.

The film becomes more stolid when 20 years have passed and Saroo has grown into a likable young man who goes off the rails when he becomes haunted by the idea of his brother and mother yearning his loss in ignorance.

Davis and scriptwriter Luke Davies don’t quite get the balance right as they explore the conflicts of a young man who, compared to hundreds of thousands of his peers in India, won life’s lottery but cannot accept it.

A turgid and repetitive orchestral score by Dustin O’Halloran adds to the gloom and while Greig Fraser’s cinematography, frequently aerial, makes clear the smallness of any of us in vast landscapes, there are numerous close-ups, especially of the grown Saroo and Lucy, that are simply dull.

The amazing qualities of the story carry the day, however, and the reunion that Saroo seeks offers an optimism that audiences will find endearing.

“Lion” had its world premiere today at the Toronto International Film Festival and will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 12. It is due for U.S. release on Nov. 25 with a U.K. release still to be announced.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: TBA / US: Nov. 25 (The Weinstein Company); Cast: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Pallavi Sharda, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate; Director: Garth Davis; Writers: Luke Davies based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose; Director of photography: Greig Fraser; Production designer: Chris Kennedy; Music: Dustin O’Halloran, Volker Bertelmann; Editor: Alexandre de Franceschi; Costumes: Cappi Ireland; Producers: Iain Canning, Angie Fielder, Emile Sherman; Production: See-Saw Films, Aquarius Films, Screen Australia, Sunstar Entertainment, The Weinstein Company; UK rating 12A; running time 129 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’

Snowden

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Oliver Stone’s docudrama “Snowden”, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, is a typically well-crafted Stone film that combines biography with a passionate defense of the man’s actions. Snowden is a hero in Stone’s eyes and his gripping and informative picture makes a convincing case.

The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival today and it will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 15 ahead of national release in North America. British distribution is still to be announced.

Director Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald based their script on a suspenseful non-fiction book, “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding, a reporter for The Guardian, the newspaper that broke the story of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance operation. It also draws from “Time of the Octopus”, a novel by Russian attorney Anatoly Kucherena, who has represented Snowden’s interests since he has lived in Moscow.

The film starts in a Hong Kong hotel as Snowden reveals to documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) the classified information he acquired from the NSA’s secret underground facility in Hawaii. The film about Snowden that Poitras made with Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky, titled “Citizenfour”, won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2015.

In Stone’s version, Snowden relates much of his life story for Poitras’s camera and tells of the events that led to his decision to blow the whistle on what he viewed as illegal eavesdropping on millions of citizens around the world including the United States.

His early dream of joining Special Forces is crushed along with the leg that buckles under fierce army training and although he quit high school to support his family, his extraordinary self-taught education, especially in languages and computers persuades the CIA to hire him.

At training camp, he comes under the guidance of a strict CIA man named Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and a disillusioned spy named Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage). A straight-arrow believer in his country, Snowden is firmly in O’Brian’s camp until gradual exposure to dirty tricks and the NSA’s secret agenda causes him to lean more toward Forrester.

Stone flashes back and forth from his hotel revelations to events in Snowden’s life including his love for a young liberal, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), his brief time in the field with a no-nonsense CIA agent (Timothy Olyphant), and the discovery of his epilepsy.

Tension ratchets up as the reporters remind him that the authorities could crack down at any moment along with knowledge of the terrible retribution that had been meted out to previous members of the security community who attempted to shed light on the government’s shadowy activities.

Gordon-Levitt grows plausibly from a callow computer geek to a determined activist and Woodley conveys Lindsay’s frustration with a partner who can say nothing about his work and her willingness to trust him in spite of that.

Ifans (“Notting Hill) appears to be growing into another Jason Robards with a nuanced performance of a veteran spy who combines avuncular warmth with cutthroat ruthlessness. His American accent is bang-on, as is that of Ben Schnetzer (“Pride”) as one of Snowden’s sympathetic young colleagues. Familiar faces dot the cast with small but effective contributions including Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Scott Eastwood and Ben Chaplin.

As usual, the director employs a variety of visual textures and he has a clever assortment of graphics and effects to keep all the complex and arcane computer programs more or less intelligible.

Craig Armstrong provides a sturdy musical score that also helps to create suspense when not much is happening and Peter Gabriel supplies an apposite song titled “The Veil” for the closing credits.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: TBA / US: Sept. 16 (Open Road Films); Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Shailene Woodley, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant; Director: Oliver Stone; Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone based on the books “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding and “Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kucherena; Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle; Production designer: Mark Tildesley; Music: Craig Armstrong, Adam Peters; Editors: Alex Marquez, Lee Percy; Costumes: Bina Daigeler; Producers: Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff, Philip Schulz-Deyle; Production: Endgame Entertainment, Vendian Entertainment, KrautPack Entertainment; Not rated; running time 134 minutes.

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