Toronto film festival 2017: a surge of woman power

The 42nd Toronto film festival was notable for its strong showing of female talent – not least an endearing coming-of-age comedy directed by Greta Gerwig

It may not have the glamour and sense of occasion of Cannes, the romance of Venice or the boutique cliquishness of Telluride, but for sheer volume and scope, the Toronto international film festival (or Tiff, to give it its perkily approachable abbreviation) is hard to beat. Even having cut its programme by 20% this year (about 60 films fewer than previous instalments), Toronto is a monster of an event.

This means several things. The first, and least welcome, of these is queues. Miles of them, snaking around the streets of the city for blocks and managed by systems that border on the Kafkaesque. Punters join them automatically, sometimes without knowing what they are waiting for. But the queues are there for a reason, which brings us to the second point: the sheer number of buzz titles. The timing of Toronto and its size means that it is an ideal platform on which to test whether a prestige title has the legs to make it a contender in the awards race.

Early indications suggest that it’s going to be another hard-fought battle in the best actress category, with a wealth of meaty, female-driven stories. And the crowd-pleasing Battle of the Sexes, the latest from the Little Miss Sunshine directing duo of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, is top of the list. Starring Emma Stone as tennis player Billie Jean King, the film tells the story of the much-publicised 1973 tennis match between King and ex-champion, and self-proclaimed male-chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, all tragicomic bluster and condescension). But more than that it’s a love story, in which King, hopelessly smitten with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), comes to terms with her own sexuality. Stone is terrific, giving King a steely sweetness and a disarming vulnerability. And while some of the overt antediluvian sexism from the commentators drew audible gasps from the audience, the themes – equal pay and equal opportunities for women, LGBT acceptance in sport – remain depressingly timely.

Another powerhouse female lead comes from Jessica Chastain, playing the eponymous central role in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game. This is pretty much the archetypal Sorkin project – a slick firework display of showy dialogue and jostling ideas and a main character with a wit that Chastain wields like a flick knife. Based on a real-life character, Molly is a former Olympic-standard skier turned hostess of unlicensed, high-stakes poker games, who finds herself at the centre of an FBI investigation. While Sorkin indulges in a few too many self-congratulatory segues and flourishes, as long as Chastain is on screen – and she’s rarely off – the film has a crackling energy and propulsive drive.

Jessica Chastain signs autographs on the red carpet.
Jessica Chastain signs autographs on the red carpet. Photograph: Frank Gunn/AP

The world of sport was a recurring theme at this year’s festival, which opened with more tennis feuding courtesy of the entertaining Borg vs McEnroe. Perhaps more of a long shot in the awards stakes, but one of the hottest tickets of the festival, I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie as disgraced American figure skater Tonya Harding. The latest film from Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), this is a deftly handled juggling act of a movie that balances the conflicting accounts – and the barefaced lies – from the key suspects in the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. Armed with a bad perm and a gift for profanity, Tonya is a gift of a role for Robbie, who attacks the character with the same forceful, fearless, take-no-prisoners attitude that Tonya brought to her triple axel. Gillespie, meanwhile, pulls off a tricky combination of mining the material for comedy – and it is very funny – without shying away from the darker elements of Harding’s story: the abuse, the discrimination and the toxic mother (a magnificently venomous Allison Janney).

Another peach of a performance comes from one of several strong British films that showed at the festival. In Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Annette Bening plays Oscar-winning Hollywood star Gloria Grahame at the end of her life when she embarked on a relationship with a young actor from Liverpool (an impressive, and unexpectedly buff, Jamie Bell). Bening faces competition on screen from production design that goes all out to capture the true horror of British provincial interior design of the 1970s, but even wallpaper that screams tortured florals is no match for her. She brilliantly captures the allure of a star whose most enduring and consuming role is herself.

Of the other British awards contenders, a standout must be Joe Wright’s take on the events surrounding the Dunkirk evacuations of 1940. Darkest Hour stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, newly appointed as prime minister and grappling with the decision of whether to negotiate terms with the Germans or whether to stand firm and possibly suffer catastrophic losses among the troops massed on the beaches in France. This is a film in which words, rather than guns, are the weapons of choice and Oldman, while not an exact match for the jowly physicality of Churchill, captures his slurred but stirring style of oration brilliantly.

Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn in Beast.
Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn channel ‘earthy, sexy danger’ in Beast. Photograph: Courtesy of TIFF

Oldman’s blustering, booze-sodden performance, together with Wright’s visually playful direction, means that even without a single shot of troops on the beaches the film packs in just as much breathless drama as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It also has the bonus of a strand of irreverent humour; essential, given how many scenes involve pompous privileged men in suits holding forth in stuffy, wood-panelled rooms.

The extensive showcase of British cinema premiering at the festival also includes Armando Iannucci’s abrasively hilarious The Death of Stalin; Clio Barnard’s savage rural family drama Dark River and the striking feature debut from Michael Pearce, Beast.

Iannucci’s picture is a typically acerbic and cynical look at the jostling power play of the inner circles of government. In this case, however, the government is that of the USSR, thrown into disarray by the death of Stalin. There are many reasons to watch this, but the main one is Simon Russell Beale in the role of Lavrentiy Beria. I can’t think of a performance more saturated with gleeful malice, nor one I have enjoyed more this festival.

Lady Bird trailer

Dark River is a picture that deals with the legacy of abuse, with Barnard’s trademark emotional intelligence and sensitivity, to devastating effect. And Beast channels an earthy, sexy danger into a Sleeping With the Enemy premise, set against the conservative backdrop of Jersey. It also showcases a formidable talent, in the shape of compelling star Jessie Buckley.

But of all the films in this year’s festival, my favourite is another directing debut, from actor Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan as a young woman coming of age in northern California, is a joy. A dexterous, agile comedy and a wholly persuasive, fleshed-out character study, this picture announces Gerwig as a significant talent behind the camera as well as in front. Christine, aka Lady Bird (Ronan), is a complex, maddeningly pretentious, utterly endearing character. Like almost everyone else in Toronto, I fell completely in love with her.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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