By William Wolf

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2004 (I)  Send This Review to a Friend

With 328 features from 60 countries enlivening the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, the most prolific in the world, it was maddening to make choices of films scheduled against one another, to say nothing of trying to attend press conferences and parties. I tried to choose wisely, and as a result, can report that most of what I saw was either outstanding or at least worthwhile. The result was a grand time getting a jump start on the coming onslaught during the rest of 2004 and into 2005.

Where to begin? High on my list of favorites—films are to be reviewed more extensively as they open commercially--is “Kinsey,” an important and provocative drama exploring the lives of Alfred Kinsey and his wife, and the role they played in advancing attitudes toward sex and open discussion of it, making many feel they were not alone in their activities and preferences. Liam Neeson gives one of the year’s finest performances as the pioneer who won praise and condemnation for devoting his life to studying sexuality. Laura Linney, ever a marvel, brought humor, subtlety, feistiness and compassion to her portrayal of his wife, Clara, starting from her student days at Indiana University, where she fell in love with Dr. Kinsey, her professor.

The film is also effective in dramatizing the effect that immersion in sexual study and field inquiries had on the Kinseys and their staff, and the entwinement of personal relationships stimulated by the explorations. Writer-director Bill Condon has provided a mature, unflinching and candid screenplay. John Lithgow is especially good as Kinsey’s overly rigid father, who harbors his own secrets, and Lynn Redgrave delivers a smashing cameo performance near the end that sums up in human terms the effect of Kinsey’s accomplishments on some individuals. The excellent cast also includes Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt and Dylan Baker.

The very classy “Being Julia” is enriched with another of the year’s best performances, this one by Annette Bening as a British actress in Hungarian director István Szabó’s sophisticated, beautifully shot (by Lajos Koltai) comedy set in late 1930s London and based on Somerset Maugham’s novella “Theatre.” Julia, celebrated for her stage performances and married to her producer-director (Jeremy Irons in a performance that’s just right) is becoming bored with her life. Suddenly she seizes the opportunity for a new escapade when Tom (Shaun Evans), a manipulative but attractive young American, makes a play for her.

An ambitious, conniving young actress, Avice Chrighton (Lucy Punch), gets in Julia’s way, in bed and on the stage, but Julia concocts her own devious method of dealing with the interloper, which makes for utter hilarity. Fueling everything is Bening’s flamboyant, multi-layered performance and Ronald Harwood’s adaptation that facilitates the elegant excursion into the period world of London Theater.

“The Motorcycle Diaries,” another of 2004’s best, warmly recounts the youth of Ernesto Che Guevara during formative years that set him on the path eventually leading to his concern for humanity and his role as a hero of the Cuban revolution. He and his friend Alberto journey from their home country of Argentina to Peru, where they are to assist in a leper colony. Gael García Bernal, Mexico’s hottest actor, humanizes Che so that we understand the young man and his growing concerns for the downtrodden. The film is entertaining as well as revealing of character, and well-directed by Walter Salles, who also gives us something of a travelogue in telling the story. (See Films for review.)

“Stage Beauty” is a vehicle for Billy Crudup that shows what a fine actor he can be. Crudup portrays Ned Kynaston in London of the 1660s, when Kynaston is hailed as a popular actor of women’s roles in the theater. It was a time when only men played women. But when a new decree specifies that only woman can play women, Kynaston is rendered obsolete. Claire Danes goes from being his assistant to performing as an actress in parts Kynaston had made his own. The screenplay is by Jeffrey Hatcher, the direction by Richard Eyre. Much of the drama is unlikely and there is some silly dialogue, but the performances and the colorfully evoked historical setting make for skeptically enjoyable watching. (See Films for review.)

One surprise was the dramatic impact of “Red Dust,” Tom Hopper’s film about events in South Africa. In the wake of the fall of apartheid and the vast changes in South Africa, an effort by the Truth and Reconciliation hearings to learn about past victims and grant amnesty to those who confess their guilt is the basis for this tense thriller. The screenplay is by Troy Kennedy-Martin based on the novel by Gillian Slovo.

Hilary Swank plays Sarah, who, haunted by memories of the country but now living in New York, returns to investigate crimes involving someone who has been important in her life. He disappeared and there has been a cover up of what happened. Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Alex, now a member of Parliament, who is bent on learning the truth but is masking his own past. As the drama builds, revelations are heaped upon revelations and danger increases amid the attempt by the perpetrators to keep a lid on the scandal.

Biographies were big at the Festival. In “Beyond the Sea” Kevin Spacey startles by showing how well he can sing in his portrayal of Bobby Darin. Spacey also directs, and while the film has its too precious moments, the star performance is dynamic enough to make the enterprise worthwhile. The music track alone should please Darin fans. Kate Bosworth plays Sandra Dee, and there are a number of good supporting performances.

Another biopic is Taylor Hackford’s “Ray,” which surveys the life of Ray Charles from poverty as a child to his international success story. Mark Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Charles, another of the year’s performance highlights, a career-building tour de force. Foxx sizzles with emotion as he brings the extraordinary story to life. Musically, the film provides an education of his journey through gospel, country, jazz, blues and swing and the innovations he brought. As in most film biographies, there’s a share of clichés. Besides, the film is overlong at 152 minutes. But it is still quite enjoyable.

In yet another movie bio, “Modigliani,” directed by Mick Davis, Andy Garcia plays the renowned artist in a turbulent 1919 Parisian setting. Garcia’s work is striking as he digs into the character and his volatile life. The story, which Davis also scripted, relies upon imagination to create events that never happened but are used to give the film plot momentum, such as a contest in which the major artists of the time compete and a heated rivalry between Modigliani and Picasso.

But the film is extremely involving because of its subject matter, and Elsa Zylberstein as Jeanne, the woman who loved him through all the angst, looks uncannily like the artist’s portraits, long neck and all. She gives a lovely, impassioned performance. After Modigliani died suddenly, Jeanne committed suicide, and the film shows their joint tomb. (More to Come)


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