The Buzz at Toronto: Literary Films, Documentaries

Nonfiction movies and adaptations of classic novels were among the most talked-about attractions at the Toronto filmfest.

While genteel Jane Austen dominated literary films in the middle '90s, cosmopolitan Henry James has been gathering momentum ever since "The Portrait of a Lady" arrived last year. Two more James tales are now reaching the screen.

Washington Square, one of his more compact and streamlined novels, stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as the lonely daughter of a physician who opposes her marriage to a penniless young man. Albert Finney and Maggie Smith are superb as the father and his dotty sister, respectively, and Agnieszka Holland has directed the picture with quiet skill.

The Wings of the Dove is based on James's dark, intricate story of lovers scheming to exploit a dying friend. Controversy may arise from a long bedroom scene, but the film retains a moral center by honestly exposing the tragic results of deliberate immorality. Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache star, and Iain Softley directed.

Mrs. Dalloway takes its story from Virginia Woolf's novel about two London couples in the World War I era: one that staves off sadness by cultivating gaiety and illusion, and another jolted into tragedy by battlefield horror. Marleen Gorris directed a fine cast headed by the luminous Vanessa Redgrave.

Among the nonfiction films at Toronto was Year of the Horse, director Jim Jarmusch's lively visit with Neil Young and the Crazy Horse rock group. Shot largely in home-movie style, the rockumentary should delight Young's many fans, although it has less depth than Jarmusch's previous pictures.

More engaging is Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, made by Errol Morris with the same method that served him well in "The Thin Blue Line": Choose fascinating people, aim the camera squarely at their faces, and let them talk about what concerns them. This time he focuses on a lion tamer, a designer of computerized robots, a gardener who prunes trees into animal shapes, and the world's leading authority on mole rats.

* Expected opening dates in US theaters: 'Fast, Cheap & out of Control,' Oct. 3; 'Washington Square,' Oct. 5; 'Year of the Horse,' Oct. 8; 'The Wings of the Dove' and 'Mrs. Dalloway,' Nov. 7.

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