Arts Review, The Arts

TIFF 2013: Final Weekend

TIFF 2013: Final Weekend featured image

This is the final weekend for TIFF 2013, which is the perfect time for a summing up of what has transpired in cinemas, on red carpets, in parties and at Bell Lightbox over the course of the past week.

There are few lines that are more evocative than this from Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

That’s TIFF for me: filled with exciting new films, world-class talent and extraordinary contact with influential filmmakers and other artists made possible by the sizzle of Galas and parties and press junkets and global sponsors. TIFF couldn’t happen without the glitz but sometimes the essence of the festival—great cinema—can be hard to locate amidst the endless flickering of camera lights, the relentless din of parties that go on too long and the drone of publicists shilling for yet another underappreciated film.

Speaking of Dickens, Ralph Fiennes was in town to promote his film The Invisible Woman, which explores the scandalous affair the famous Victorian author had during the latter part of his life with actress Nelly Ternan. While Felicity Jones is reasonably effective as Ternan, director-actor Fiennes is brilliant as Dickens, who was a celebrity lecturer and actor acclaimed during his lifetime for declaiming scenes from his novels.

Fiennes was “full value,” as the Brits would say, but this festival was more about the North American discovery of two other English actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofur. Cumberbatch came to the festival highly touted as a rising star, beloved in England for his deliciously arrogant portrayal of the titular contemporary Sherlock Holmes on a highly touted BBC TV series.

The three films he was in did rather well. Cumberbatch was positively Sherlockian as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in TIFF’s opening night gala The Fifth Estate: conceited, elusive, obstinate and irrepressibly charismatic. He fit nicely into the creative ensemble that made the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County into something remarkable. Hardly the main attraction in a production that stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts—both remarkable–as a dueling mother and daughter, Cumberbatch registers well in the minor but showy role of the emotionally damaged “Little Charlie,” a fulcrum for the tragic events that unfold in this decaying American household.

In Steve McQueen’s extraordinary 12 Years as a Slave, Cumberbatch is effectively placed in a character actor’s role as the first and nicest of the owners of Solomon Northup, a New York based free-born African American, who was shanghaied into slavery in the American South in the 1840s. The starring role in this real-life tale went to Chiwetel Ejiofur, a superb British actor of Nigerian descent, who dials down the melodrama of his character’s horrifying circumstances and simply allows us to experience the anguish of an intelligent and good man thrust into an impossible situation. Cinema and installation artist McQueen, also black and British, has removed obvious art-house gestures, making this his first true work of film (after the problematic if intermittently effective Shame and Hunger). This should be the film that launches Ejiofur, who was terrific in Stephen Frears’ immigration drama Dirty Pretty Things and as the transvestite Lola in Kinky Boots, into genuine stardom.

Jesse Eisenberg’s two starring roles at TIFF are less likely to do as well for him as the Cumberbatch and Ejiofur’s films. The Double is, however, a tour-de-force for Eisenberg, who plays the nerdy reclusive Simon James and his doppelganger James Simon, an ultra-confident dude who has no idea what is being manufactured by the company he works for—but is still its rising young star. Simon James works for the same company but is ignored by everyone except for the quietly soulful Hannah, played by this year’s Indie “It Girl,” Mia Wasikowska. Naturally, it’s James who starts up a relationship with Hannah while Simon stews in the background.

The Double is based on a Dostoyevsky story—although Kafka could just have easily written it. The film’s design evokes Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and nearly everything by Guy Maddin: steam punk retro machines, offices out of Victorian England and Cold War-era clothes. It wouldn’t be TIFF if I didn’t get to tell you that Wasikowska and Eisenberg are now a couple and their party had sushi from Blowfish on King Street (superb, by the way).

Eisenberg is the lead, once again inhabiting his repressed intellectual persona in Kelly Reichardt’s new drama Night Moves. In it, he is Josh, part of a trio of eco-terrorists, which also includes the young and naive Dena and the hardened ex-con Harmon. Eisenberg’s quietly edgy performance is more than matched by Dakota Fanning’s Dena. She is terrific in a scene in which she has to convince a tough old agriculture expert to sell her 500 pounds of fertilizer containing ammonium nitrate, a substance that can be used for explosives. Veteran actor Peter Sarsgaard is fine as Harmon, the toughest of the three, who leads them to use the explosive material to blow up a bridge.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, Reichardt’s stomping grounds, Night Moves effectively depicts the hippie-back-to-the-land culture that still exists there. But even amongst hippies, blowing up bridges and possibly killing innocent bystanders is not acceptable behaviour. Reichardt takes her time to let the story unfold as her trio of extreme eco-activists become undone under the pressure of what they’ve done.

Will either The Double or Night Moves become hits outside of the hothouse atmosphere of film festivals? Unlikely. But I expect that Eisenberg had a good time at TIFF anyway.

TIFF also featured a great Doc Conference, too. Far less glamorous, it had lots of great talks about how one can make documentaries in an environment that loves the genre but refuses to finance it. The final session had a bit of star power, with TIFF Doc programmer Thom Powers interviewing actor-director Sarah Polley about her award-wining film Stories We Tell. There was much humour and good sense in their conversation. At one point, Powers told Polley—and an attentive audience of filmmakers and critics—something that Steven Soderbergh had once related to him. When dealing with potential producers, the director of Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovich said, “Always tell them—ultimately it’s about hope.”

What can be a better life lesson to take away from TIFF 2013?

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