By William Wolf


Dramatization of relationships was at the heart of many films in the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, and the better ones often touched emotions in creative ways.

Take, for example, “A Good Year,” Sir Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Peter Mayle’s novel set in France’s region of Provence. A highlight is Russell Crowe’s congenially romantic performance that contrasts with his hard-edged other screen appearances. Although his character Max earns his living by being a cutthroat financier and manipulator, when he goes to Provence in connection with the estate of his late uncle Henry (colorfully played in flashbacks by Albert Finney), Max’s tender side is evoked. Part of the evoking is done by the local attractive French woman Fanny (Marion Cotillard), to whom he is attracted.

There are other kinds of relationships in “A Good Year,” one of which is the extent of fidelity to the memory of his uncle, who was so important to him while growing up. Another is Max’s relationship to ethics, and yet another to the vineyard that was not only important to his uncle but symbolizes respect for the traditions in Provence, which he comes to love. Crowe gives an especially appealing performance, and the film is also rich in atmosphere.

Another film set in France and shown at the festival is Alain Resnais’ “Coeurs,” going by the English title “Private Fears in Public Places,’ the name of the Alan Ayckbourn play from which the film was adapted. Although British playwright Ayckbourn wrote about Brits in England, the switch to France works extremely well, probably because of the universality of the relationships examined.

The story involves an assortment of characters, all of whom are lonely in one respect or another. There are Thierry (André Dussollier), a real estate agent, and his colleague Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), who fights to maintain her religious morality but secretly makes porn videos of herself and gives them to Thierry without revealing that she is on them. Thierry’s sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) is seeking a man through lonely hearts ads, and she is smitten when she meets Dan (Lambert Wilson), who also falls for her. Dan is in the process of breaking up with Nicole (Laura Morante), who is fed up with him and decides to leave.

Meanwhile Gaëlle spends part of her time helping barman Lionel (Pierre Arditi) care for his ill, nasty father, whom we hear but never see. She develops her own method of pacifying him. The film, ultimately a sad one because the relationships do not get the chance to flourish and bring people out of their loneliness, is beautifully constructed and meticulously acted in a way that is emotionally moving and touching.

In “Volver,” Pedro Almodóvar’s tour de force, associations are complex. There is a mother-daughter relationship between Raimunda (PenélopeCruz) and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) that binds them even more by a killing. There is also the relationship between Raimunda amd her assumed dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura). There are relationships from the past that govern the present, when family secrets begin to be revealed.

The writer-director has handled all of this with his customary gusto, and the larger-than-life performance by Cruz set off talk about her as a potential Oscar nominee. The film was positioned to be one of the major foreign language entries of the year.

“Breaking and Entering,” written and directed by Anthony Minghella, deals with the fierce desire of a mother, Amira, a Bosnian refugee portrayed by Juliette Binoche with convincing accent to match, to protect her young son, Miro (Rafi Gavron), who has fallen into bad company and is involved in a robbery. There is also the relationship between Will (Jude Law), a landscape architect, and Amira, with whom he is captivated even though he has a live-in girlfriend, Liv (Robin Wright Penn).

Set in London, “Breaking and Entering” is laden with an urban atmosphere in which the lives of the various characters intersect. The film builds tension toward a point at which hard decisions must be made and Liv and Will must rise to the demands of the moment and the crises in their lives.

Canadian director Sarah Polley’s “Away from Her” poses a most difficult husband-wife situation. Fiona (Julie Christie in an exquisite performance) realizes that she has Alzheimer’s disease. She and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been in a loving marriage for 50 years. But she jolts him when she insists that she wants to leave him to go into a medical residence where she can inevitably deteriorate without putting a burden on him.

Grant fights against the idea, and even after she moves into the residence, he does not want to let go, still trying to be there for her even though she wants to keep him at bay to allow herself to peace and independence she seeks. Gradually, she barely acknowledges him as her illness worsens, and what affection she can muster is turned toward a fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Olympia Dukakis is effective as Aubrey’s wife, whom Grant meets and with whom he begins to become emotionally involved.

In “Infamous,” Truman Capote, played by a dead-ringer for him, Toby Jones, is depicted as falling in love with Perry Smith, one of the killers he is writing about in his book “In Cold Blood.” There are some strong scenes between them in prison, where Capote is trying to win the condemned Perry’s confidence and get him to explain his life and the brutal crime he committed with an accomplice.

The film by Douglas McGrath is in some ways deeper than its predecessor “Capote,” and Jones gives a performance to rival that of the award-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman. This version includes scenes with Capote’s various important New York pals and the depth of the friendship between Capote and author Nell Harper Lee, given a most convincing portrayal by Sandra Bullock. Perry is played by Daniel Craig in a role that contrasts sharply with his anointment as the latest James Bond.

“Stranger than Fiction” has a relationship that’s the strangest of all. Will Ferrell as IRS agent Harold Crick is hearing a female voice describing all of his actions and he can’t seem to get his life together. The voice belongs to Emma Thompson as novelist Karen “Kay” Eiffel, and Crick comes to realize that his relationship with her is because he is a character in her latest novel that she is in the process of writing but unable to complete because she hasn’t yet figured out the ending.

How she chooses to end the book determines whether Crick lives or dies, so he has a strong vested interest in the outcome. Dustin Hoffman portrays the literature expert from whom he seeks help. As for a romantic relationship, Crick finds his in Ana, a baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, their meeting beginning as very confrontational. Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster, “Stranger than Fiction” is as charming and amusing as it is unusual.

Extraordinary and challenging, “Venus,” directed by Roger Michell from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, provides a superb showcase for Peter O’Toole, who gives a strong performance as Maurice, an elderly actor and most difficult man whose life is suddenly charged with new energy when the teenage daughter of his roommate Ian’s niece comes to care for him. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is an edgy, rebellious sort of a generation far removed from the world of Maurice and his retired cronies, one of whom is played by Richard Griffiths, so good this year on stage and film in “The History Boys,” the other, Ian, being played by Leslie Phillips.

Jessie gives Maurice a new appetite for life, as he becomes her mentor, taking her to the theater and other places, and, as one might expect, she arouses some sexual interest in him. Where can this lead? The actor is in absolute command of his art, and he makes us feel for Maurice as he desperately wants to snare even a small measure of sexuality from this vibrant youth. The film looms as somewhat of a breakthrough performance for Whittaker, who is sassy and provocative in her part, yet manages to flash moments of warmth and understanding.

The worst film that I chose among those possible to see in the onrush of what was available at the festival was by far Manuel Pradal’s French “Un Crime,” containing obnoxious characters unbearable to watch. Set in New York, the film stars Harvey Keitel as Roger, a scruffy cab driver, who makes the mistake of becoming involved with Alice (Emmanuelle Béart), who is already involved with Vincent (Norman Reedus), whose life is a shambles but whom Alice feels she bound to help

The scheme Alice and Vincent concoct is a nasty one, but the problem is that since all three characters are so unpleasant, and the film itself is so boring, seeing it tests endurance. Ah well, everything at a festival can’t come up roses, but the fine films I have described above, and other good ones I haven’t, more than make up for a misstep.

(More to Come)


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