By William Wolf

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2005 (I)  Send This Review to a Friend

Observing its 30th anniversary, the Toronto International Film Festival 2005 reflected how much it had grown since its inception. Running smoothly, the film-rich event dazzled with the choices available during its September 8-17 run. The quality of films helped, too, with many works of stature available, a good omen for the more serious minded moviegoer. As is customary, there was world-wide representation among the massive collection of films showcased in such a limited period, including 256 features, and counting short films, a total of 335 works from 52 countries.

I had a number of favorites, beginning with the opening night gala showing “Water,” written and directed by Deepa Mehta, Dealing with unconscionable plight of widows in India, the film was an emotionally shattering experience. Set during the time Gandhi’s reputation was on the rise, the film reveals the choices for widows—throwing themselves on funeral pyres with their husbands or being shunned for the rest of their lives.

There is a heartbreaking performance by Sarala as an eight-year-old child bride who is sent to an ashram for widows and exploited by the ruthless, embittered woman in charge. There is also the sad love story involving a young widow and the man who is faced with risking scorn or abandoning her. Mehta has packed her film with atmosphere and the feeling of hopelessness instilled by the cruel, discriminatory customs.

On the brighter side, was “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” a colorful film from Britain starring Dame Judi Dench as a wealthy widow who in 1937 buys the famous Windmill Theatre and hires an irascible manager, Vivian Van Damm, played by Bob Hoskins, to run it. Eventually, they feature nudes who pose without moving. The story involves the affectionately stormy relationship between Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm, all against the background of London during World War II and the blitz.

Dench and Hoskins are terrific together, and the film, directed with panache by Stephen Frears, is a classy combination of an odd relationship, theater history, musical numbers and nostalgia.

One of the more unusual films was “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana based on a short story by Annie Prouix. Two cowboys, portrayed by charismatic Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, fall in love while herding sheep in Wyoming, but the prejudices of the time prevent them from building a life together.

Each has a wife, and they manage to go off together periodically on supposed fishing trips, but must cope with the pain of not making their relationship open and permanent. The story is a serious one played out against scenic splendor, with strong supporting performances by Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams as the women in their lives. It is as if John Ford did a Western with a clearly gay theme.

“A History of Violence,” directed by David Cronenberg in top form, turned out to be a gripping story set in a fictional American town with the protagonist a man who may or may not be who he says he is. His is played to perfection by Viggo Mortensen, with Mario Bello as his wife, Ed Harris as a menacing interloper and William Hurt delivering a strong performance as a mobster. (Click on Film or Search for a full review).

Curtis Hanson directed a major Hollywood movie, “In Her Shoes,” a colorful story of two sisters, one, Rose, a very responsible but frustrated woman played by Toni Collette, the other, Maggie, a sexy but ditsy and irresponsible dame played by Cameron Diaz. Things change when Maggie looks up her grandmother at a Florida retirement community and a relationship between them blossoms, with Maggie taking on work responsibilities. Shirley MacLaine gives a restrained but moving performance as the grandmother. The film is filled with humor, heart and other ingredients that make it highly entertaining as well as a bit of a tearjerker.

Another of my favorites was the very offbeat “Tristram Shandy—A Cock and Bull Story,” Michael Winterbottom’s hilarious spoof on adapting a famous novel for the screen. The source is Laurence Sterne’s period book “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” a work which on the surface looks impossibly difficult to film.The travesty chronicles all of the efforts, jealousies between actors and the colorful escapades involved during the filming.

The star is the very funny Steve Coogan, who plays the actor playing Tristram and as well as Tristram in the movie. Other key performances are contributed by Rob Brydon and Gillian Armstrong. The movie is consistently witty and an inventive take on the process of adaptation as well as filmmaking itself.

One of the other extremely offbeat entries was “Romance and Cigarettes,” directed by John Turturro. It is built around a husband-wife battle, with James Gandolfini as the husband and Susan Sarandon as the exasperated mate who wants to leave him when she learns that he has been cheating. The gimmick here is that the characters burst into song at various times, making the whole thing quite nutty but also occasionally charming. The cast also includes Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale and Christopher Walken. The performances are generally off the wall and funny, but the film is an acquired taste.

Why another screen version of “Oliver Twist”? Because director Roman Polanski had a vision of how it should be done and has succeeded in creating an intelligent, entertaining and moving adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic. Polanski, using a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, conveys the larger-than-life color of Dickens’ characters with an earthy realism that expresses the poverty and underbelly of the time, and the result is a honey of a literary movie, Polanski has also de-anti-Semitized Fagin. The new version is a far cry from the old Alec Guinness interpretation that depicted Fagin as an evil Jewish caricature. This Fagin, as played by a barely recognizable Ben Kingsley, is both a wicked leader of his gang of thieves and a man with a streak of kindness that runs counter to his role in life. (Click on Film or Search to see full review).

Home Box Office (HBO) presented a television-bound feature, “Mrs. Harris,” starring Annette Bening in a bravura performance as the scorned woman who killed her lover, diet doctor Herman Tarnower, played as an arrogant, egotistical charmer by Ben Kingsley. Harris served a prison term for murder, although she insisted the gun went off by accident in a struggle and that her real intention was to kill herself.

Bening is superb probing the woman’s range of emotions, including her deep love for the doctor despite the way in which he treated her and her resentment that was surmounted by her attachment to him and her affection for him. Directed by Phyllis Nagy, the mostly compelling film is also part courtroom drama.

Although quite well done, “The Matador” is not very believable fluff that gains from its appealing performances. Pierce Brosnan sheds his Bond image to play Julian, a hit man with an amusing side. Greg Kinnear is Danny, a naïve family man from Colorado who on a trip to Mexico becomes friendly with Julian. The friendship is more than he bargains for. At first he can’t believe Julian’s profession. Danny goes along as an accomplice in one of Julian’s assignments. The story is colorfully spun by director Richard Shepard.

A new version of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” sparkles with good performances, especially the leads, Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy. Deborah Moggach’s screenplay and Joe Wright’s direction turn this into a serious and emotionally felt adaptation that goes for realism and seriousness rather than trying to be a showpiece. Knightley is wonderfully touching in her part, and Macfadyen is handsome and reserved as the smitten Darcy. Brenda Blethyn is thoroughly believable as Mrs. Bennet trying to marry off her daughters, and Dame Judi Dench couldn’t be better as Lady Catherine. The film is rich in period ambience and does justice to Austen’s portrait of the conventions and limitations faced by women of the time. It film has modern appeal without distorting the classic story.

Felicity Huffman, known for her work in the TV series “Desperate Housewives,” breaks out of the mold in “Transamerica,” playing a man who considers himself a woman, Bree, and is about to complete the process with surgery. But before she can get approval from her therapist, she must resolve an issue from the past, having fathered a son. Toby (Kevin Zegers) doesn’t know that Bree is really his dad. How will it all be resolved? Duncan Tucker has written and directed “Transamerica” as a serious work that attempts to deal with a painful situation in a human way. Huffman’s performance that carries the day.

If one didn’t see Mary-Louise Parker in the play “Proof” on and off Broadway, one might be more disposed to enjoying the film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the role of Catherine, a young woman who is mourning the death of her mathematician father and may have solved a monumental mathematical problem in her own right. The issues at hand are whether Catherine indeed has scored such a coup, whether she can prove it, her fears of becoming mentally unstable as her father was after doing his great work and the determination of her dominating sister to pluck her out of her home and environment. At heart is also the problem of a male tendency not to readily believe that a woman could achieve such a monumental breakthrough in math that has eluded ambitious men.

Parker crackled in the role, showing Catherine to be witty and feisty and still portraying her vulnerable side, but always grounded in her dignity and determination not to be cowed by her overbearing sister, who is played very impressively on screen by Hope Davis. Films should stand on their own, but the memory of Parker comes to mind as a way of defining what is wrong with the film version of David Auburn’s play, even though he collaborated on the screenplay with Rebecca Miller. Paltrow is so whiny and hysterical that it is hard to imagine her as a math whiz. Also there seems to be less wit and sharpness than I recall in the stage version. Anthony Hopkins plays Catherine’s father Robert. Although he is intermittently present, we soon catch on that he has died. This sort of device is easier to pull off successfully on stage where audiences, seduced by the magic of theater, more readily suspend disbelief, as opposed to the realism of film. Still, Hopkins is very good in the part. (Click on Film or Search for full review).

The Festival was filled with unusual films from various nations. One odd little American independent film was “Brooklyn Lobster,” written and directed by Kevin Jordan, who instills his film with the convincing feeling of life in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Danny Aiello is a force as Frank Giorgio, the hot-headed operator of a lobster shop that has been handed down in his family. But he is now facing the dire situation of being about to lose the business in a foreclosure a result of debts he cannot pay.

Jane Curtin plays his wife, who is dispirited and weary of being married to a man like Frank, and Daniel Sauli and Marisa Ryan portray their adult children who must deal with the crisis. The screenplay is on the melodramatic and unbelievable side, but the performances and the realistic atmosphere Jordan sustains make the film engrossing.

(More to come)


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