In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.
This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.
Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.
To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.
Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.
While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.
This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.
If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.
This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.
Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.
Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.
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