If it felt like the film festival hype machine was whirring back to life this summer following acclaimed editions of Cannes and Venice, the Toronto international film festival (Tiff) is proof that the industry has not returned to normal just yet. Sundance and Berlin predated Covid vaccination programmes and so took place digitally, while Cannes and Venice demanded attendance in person. Toronto, usually a major destination for awards-season films, has taken a hybrid approach.
There have been physical screenings, but many of its international delegates (myself included) had to attend virtually. Some film-makers have been reluctant to premiere their work this way and chosen other festivals, leaving Toronto in the shadow of its flashier, ballsier rivals.
Terence Davies’s Benediction was one of the festival’s most talked-about titles. A sad, sparkling ode to Siegfried Sassoon, the gay first world war poet is portrayed with heartbreaking acuity by Jack Lowden and, in his later years, by Peter Capaldi. The film moves back and forth between the doomed dalliances of Sassoon’s youth and the soldier turned pacifist’s bitter surrender to a conventional life of marriage, children and a conversion to Catholicism. Both his tragically unconsummated romance with the poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) and a drawn-out affair with the seductive, cruel-eyed Ivor Novello (a sneering Jeremy Irvine) haunt and harden him. Much like Sassoon’s trench fever, his struggles are “nothing fatal – just debilitating”.
Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in Terence Davies’s Benediction. Photograph: TIFF
Another work that dealt with PTSD was Beast director Michael Pearce’s ambitious, sci-fi tinged second feature, Encounter. Riz Ahmed’s ex-marine Malik is on a rescue mission, shuttling his two sons across the Nevada desert to safety, away from the deadly parasites that have infected the public and, worse, their mother. Lucian-River Chauhan is a revelation as the stoic, vulnerable 10-year-old Jay, who soon realises that it is he who must protect his father and not the other way around.
Ahmed also executive produced Flee, a buzzy and beautiful animated documentary from Jonas Poher Rasmussen striding across the festival circuit after its grand jury prize win at Sundance. Its protagonist is Amin, a thirtysomething academic and gay man from Afghanistan living in Denmark. Through a series of interviews, he recounts the suppressed tale of his illegal migration 20 years ago. The journey is made all the more poignant by Amin’s joyful recollections of formative crushes, 1980s pop songs and his first trip to a gay club. I suspect it will collect an Oscar nomination next year.
Mélanie Laurent’s feminist gothic thriller The Mad Women’s Ball, based on the bestselling French novel of the same name and now available on Amazon Prime, is a blast. Set in a psychiatric hospital in 19th-century Paris, the film’s “mad” women rail against cruel ice baths, predatory doctors and misogyny from staff of all genders. Another period drama, Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, is less of a romp. This eye-wateringly quirky biopic stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the British artist famous for his psychedelic cat pictures. With its arch, storybook-style narration, beautifully designed Victorian sets and stacked ensemble cast (including Claire Foy and Olivia Colman, with cameos from Richard Ayoade, Taika Waititi and Nick Cave), it all feels a bit Wes Anderson-lite.
Lou de Laâge and director Mélanie Laurent in her gothic thriller The Mad Women’s Ball. Photograph: AccuSoft Inc
One of Tiff’s most fun innovations is its “midnight madness” programme, a rowdy selection of horror movies primed for cult status, screening in a late-night slot (it hosted the world premiere of Rose Glass’s lauded Saint Maud in 2019). It wasn’t quite the same watching without an audience, but I was suitably spooked by a woman fitting her entire hand down her throat in You Are Not My Mother. In the run-up to Halloween, depressed single mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) disappears suddenly. When she returns, her teenage daughter, Char (Hazel Doupe), finds her behaviour odd. There are cracking joints, rotting faces and a sprinkling of folk mythology in this quietly creepy debut from Irish film-maker Kate Dolan.
Operating on a different spiritual plane is Rob Savage’s Dashcam, the British director’s follow-up to last year’s smart video-chat horror Host. Produced by Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, The Purge), it plays as found footage from a rightwing online troll and anti-vaxxer (Annie Hardy) as she livestreams a trip from LA to London in the dead of lockdown. The “live” comments that pop up on the screen throughout are savagely funny and feel true to life, though the actual monster that pursues Annie doesn’t. It’s gory, annoying, provocative, entirely ridiculous and should work even better in a packed cinema. It will be at the London film festival next month.
Watching from my sofa meant that Netflix’s festival offerings had something of an advantage. In The Guilty, a faithful English-language remake of the 2018 Danish thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal is an emasculated, asthmatic police dispatch officer who picks up a 911 call about a kidnapping and sets about proving himself a hero. Directed by cop-movie king Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), with the action unfolding via phone calls, it’s a well-executed, fun, lo-fi concept and makes sense on a smaller screen. Hopefully, it will encourage audiences to check out the original. As for The Starling, a trite, mawkish drama that launches on Netflix this week, starring Melissa McCarthy as a grieving mother –at least there was the option of turning it off.
The Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has disowned Jagged, a new documentary about her 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. She refused to attend the premiere, criticising the film-maker’s “salacious agenda”. Isn’t it ironic then, that the tension Morissette describes is entirely lacking from Alison Klayman’s dull, sheeny rock doc.
Surprise highlight… Listening to Kenny G. Photograph: HBO Documentary Films
It was a different music documentary that caught my attention and ended up being the festival’s surprise highlight. Hail Satan? director Penny Lane’s warm and fabulously witty Listening to Kenny G takes on the smooth-jazz saxophonist whose music is a mainstay of dental surgery waiting rooms all over the world. It’s more generous than a straight send-up, though, and a brilliant lesson in 1980s pop history and how commercialisation shaped an era’s tastes. I’m with Lane: taste, not commerce, should determine hype.