By William Wolf


Performances by stars still drive interest in choosing films to see, the cult of the director notwithstanding. Some powerful and appealing performances highlighted the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the most lauded was the dynamic performance by Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky. There was speedy buzz about Rourke’s work, leading to great anticipation and crowded screenings. Rourke more than delivered.

In the stark film, marked by violent, bruising wresting, Rourke plays Randy, a has-been trying to make a comeback and regain dignity that he has squandered in an unsatisfactory personal life. The character is pitiful, but Rourke gets one to root for him as a result of his stunning performance marked by both courage and heartbreak.

One can barely recognize the actor. He has gained considerable weight, and it also looks as if there has been body padding to give him an over-the-top physical appearance more like that of Arnold Schwarzenegger than the Rourke of old. This is clearly one of the year’s memorable acting turns and it is likely to be considered for various awards, the Oscar included.

However, as good as the film is, watching is tough for anyone who can’t stand the intense ugly battling in the ring. The screenplay by Robert Siegel is loaded with clichés, but other casting enhances the film, particularly that of Marisa Tomei as Cassidy, a struggling stripper who is torn between her attraction to Rourke and the need for her to build her own life.

Another star turn that gained respect in Toronto is that of Anne Hathaway in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.” Hathaway plays Kym, who leaves rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is totally self-centered, as she has long been, and when she shows up for Rachel’s nuptials in Connecticut, the focus shifts to her.

Hathaway turns the trick of making one sympathize with Kym, even while finding her too much and not wanting her to wreck the family gathering, which inevitably explodes into various revealing conflicts that disrupt everything. Hathaway dominates the film with her work and she is likely to also be remembered at awards time.

Another actress who impresses is Keira Knightley in “The Duchess,” directed by Saul Dibb. The period costume drama set in the 18th century, is not a universal pleaser, but there has been general praise for Knightley’s work as the colorful Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire.

One of the talked about attractions at the Toronto Festival was Steven Soderburgh’s two-part drama depicting the revolutionary life of the legendary Che Guevara. Benicio del Toro stars as Che in the film titled “Che.” He is an actor who has earned acclaim in other work, and in this strong film depicting victory in Cuba and defeat in Bolivia, Del Toro demonstrates why so many consider him an exceptionally fine actor.

By now, Kristin Scott Thomas has established herself as a draw in whatever film she is in, and at the Festival, she excelled in “Easy Virtue,” Stephan Elliott’s adaptation of a play by Noel Coward. She plays an up-tight, angry grande dame who is incensed at the American bride her son has brought home to the family estate. Thomas turns on the resentment big style.

In a double exposure at the Toronto Festival, Thomas shone in a meaty role in Philippe Claudet’s “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime” (I’ve Loved You So Long”). Thomas is fluent in French, and in this drama she plays a woman who comes to live with her sister and her husband after a stretch in prison and a mysterious reason by she committed a crime. It is another stunning acting job. Incidentally, she is also triumphing on stage in New York in a revival of Chekhov’s drama “The Seagull.”


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