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Toronto International Film Festival: Fewer political movies, more literary adaptations

A new version of a Henry James novel and a Shakespeare adaptation by Joss Whedon were standouts.

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Similar to “West of Memphis” in some ways is the documentary The Central Park Five, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns (his daughter), and David McMahon (her husband), which is about five black and Latino teenagers (one of whom appeared in Toronto) who were falsely convicted in 1989 of brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park.

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The film is a study in citywide mob-mentality hysteria at the expense of reason. But if political films were on the downswing this year, that old standby, the literary adaptation, ranging from traditional to extra-crispy, was ascendant. The most straightforward in the bunch was Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, featuring Ralph Fiennes as grimy escaped convict Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham. It’s a respectable effort – there have been six previous film adaptations of Dickens’s masterpiece – but why bother when David Lean’s 1946 version is unbeatable?

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is another novel that has been filmed many times before, including twice with Greta Garbo. Joe Wright’s version, adapted by Tom Stoppard and starring Keira Knightley as the resplendently suffering Anna, is anything but traditional, confined for the most part to a stage setting that reduces Tolstoy’s grandeur to pipsqueak status.

Far better was What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, which updates Henry James’s novel of childhood neglect to modern-day Manhattan and stars Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the 6-year-old Maisie’s dysfunctional parents. Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie, is remarkably poised in the role. Said Alexander Skarsgard, who also appears in the film: “We, the adult actors, do all this research to find the essence of the character. Then I work with her and she’s so – alive.”

Long regarded as unfilmable, David Mitchell’s time-tripping novel Cloud Atlas was indeed filmed, albeit with a length (three hours) and logic (fuzzy) that left most of us feeling poleaxed. The “Matrix” siblings, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer teamed up for this one, which puts actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Broadbent through so many facial do-overs that the makeup artists should really get a codirector credit.

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