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.

Focus Features/Toronto Film Festival
Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright's new adaptation of Tolstoy's epic story of love, 'Anna Karenina.'
Toronto Film Festival
Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck star in the romantic drama 'To the Wonder,' a new film by Terrence Malick.

The Toronto International Film Festival, in its 37th year, is the largest public film festival in the world. And what a public it is. Audiences here, often massed in waiting lines snaking around the block, are movie infatuated. At the recently concluded Venice Film Festival, Terrence Malick’s wayward new film “To the Wonder” was loudly booed, but here no such cacophony can be heard. Moviegoing is a holy ritual (except for all that texting).

Besides, if you don’t like one movie there’s always another. About 300, actually, from more than 60 countries. I saw 20 in six days, not to mention attending receptions, interviews, and press conferences. Toronto provides a big picture window into the big fall Hollywood season as well as worthies from around the world that are still hunting for distribution (and, alas, may never find it).

There is also, of course, the usual circuslike atmosphere that pervades the festival during its first long weekend, when the major Hollywood players roll into town with their wares and convert streets into limo lanes and fancy hotel entrances into autograph outposts. Fans have been complaining that the barricades separating them from the stars – Johnny Depp, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Dustin Hoffman, Marion Cotillard, ad infinitum – have been set farther back this year. Bribes of up to $1,000 to skip the line have reportedly been offered to burly security guards.

The stars, meanwhile, had to content themselves with swag lounges that were relatively scaled back – unless you were an A-lister and could score a Tiffany bracelet. More likely you could get your nails polished and your shoes shined.

Trade talk abounded in Toronto. There is a growing recognition that the Asian film industry is on its way to becoming the most dynamic and fastest growing in the world. Also, after a rather bleak period following the global financial meltdown, financing for independent movies seems once again to be on the upswing. Given the bloated unadventurousness of most studio movies, this is good news.

One big change at this year’s festival was the comparative scarcity of politically themed movies, especially in the documentary realm. This was the festival, after all, where films like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Hurt Locker,” “In the Valley of Elah,” and many others received big send-offs.

Perhaps this is because filmmakers are worn out trying to save the world and are content instead to save a small piece of it.

Amy Berg’s documentary West of Memphis, for example, is about the consequences of a slapdash murder trial in which three Arkansas teenagers, who are almost certainly innocent of murdering three young boys, were railroaded into extensive prison terms. (By copping a plea, all are now released, though not exonerated.) Depp, along with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, are champions of the accused and were on hand at the festival.

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.

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.

In some ways the most charming surprise was the update of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, by none other than Joss Whedon, who filmed it in black and white over 12 days last year in his Spanish-style Los Angeles mansion while he was editing “The Avengers.”

Using a cast drawn largely from his TV career (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly”) Whedon won’t be giving the Royal Shakespeare Company any sleepless nights, but he’s true to the Bard’s language and sense of fun. Asked by an audience member after the screening if he had contemplated doing any other Shakespeare plays, he replied that he’s also a huge fan of “Twelfth Night,” “but that requires three houses.”

One of the most popular festival films was David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, costarring Bradley Cooper as a bipolar rampager and Jennifer Lawrence as a young widow and fellow sufferer. Sort of a “David and Lisa” for the 21st century, the lining here may be a bit too silver, but Lawrence continues to showcase her shape-shifting versatility. There were bits and pieces I liked from other films. The great French director Laurent Cantet’s first American feature, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates novel, is sharply observed; and unlike the 1996 version of this same material, starring Angelina Jolie, it’s set in the right era – the 1950s. The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, is an understated drama about a sex therapist who administers to a man in an iron lung longing to lose his virginity. Hunt spends a lot of time in the film unclothed. Asked about that at a press conference, she deadpanned, “I might take my clothes off right here. In fact, it’s entirely possible.” (She didn’t).

And what of Malick’s new film, To the Wonder? Let’s just say that it plays like the B-side of “The Tree of Life,” a movie I wasn’t crazy about either. But at least this one doesn’t have dinosaurs. It also currently doesn’t have a distributor. It does have Ben Affleck in a near-mute role.

And, no, I didn’t boo.

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