I must confess I’ve previously been a little cynical about Toronto international film festival (Tiff) audiences, with their boundless enthusiasm, their jack-in-the-box standing ovations, their need to haul bucket-sized cups of coffee with them everywhere. But gosh, how I miss them this year.
The festival in its much reduced Covid-compliant form is a very different beast. The programme is considerably smaller (50 feature films compared with 333 last year) and less starry: the Hollywood studios, which habitually swoop in to test the mettle of their potential awards-contenders, are largely absent. There are no visitors from overseas and just a few physical screenings – in drive-ins, at outdoor screens and socially distanced cinemas in the festival hub. Most of the festival, for most delegates, myself included, has been an entirely digital experience. But while necessary, this mixing up of the formula has served to highlight just what makes Toronto such a vibrant, vital event in more normal times.
The lack of the collective sense of discovery is particularly stinging given the fact that there are treasures in the programme that would have been bona fide crowd-pleasers if only there was a crowd to please. Foremost of these is Limbo, the second feature from writer-director Ben Sharrock. Set in the Outer Hebrides, shot in a palette of purgatorial greys and water-logged earth tones, the film brings something of the wryly downbeat humour of Elia Suleiman to this story of asylum seekers, marooned in bureaucracy and stranded on an island while they wait for decisions on their cases. It’s a marvel of tonal dexterity, balancing moments of warmth and humour against stabs of wrenching sadness. In a normal year, this might have prompted post-screening group hugs in the Scotiabank theatre. Traditionally more hug-averse British audiences can catch the film as part of the London film festival programme next month.
Also screening in the London programme is Wolfwalkers, a gorgeous animated fantasy set in 17th-century Ireland and created by the team behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. The distinctive animation style, which combines an angularity that evokes the sparse, stylised animals of illustrator Charley Harper with a saturating wash of Celtic mystery, will be familiar to fans of the previous two films. The central theme, which explores the collision between the delicately balanced natural world and the encroaching threat of humanity, has drawn comparisons with Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. It’s a remarkable work: inventive, agile and driven by the tumbling feral joy of its wolf-girl protagonists.
London film festival punters will also get to see another of the most hotly anticipated films of Tiff: a period lesbian romance that unfolds on the drizzly beaches of Lyme Regis, Ammoniteis the follow-up to God’s Own Country by Francis Lee. It places Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan (both excellent) in the kind of smouldering but unspoken sexual dynamic that will be familiar to fans of his first feature. The film divided opinion, with some critics put off by the morose dampness of the British seaside backdrop and others thrilled by the picture’s unconventional – and confrontational – depiction of Victorian female sexuality.
Relationships come in all shapes and forms at Tiff, but few are as showily chaotic as that of Chloe (Denise Gough) and Mickey (Sebastian Stan) in Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s Monday. I adored this shrapnel-blast of black comedy, which is described by the director as “a romcom gone wrong” – and how! There are moments so mortifying that it hurts to watch (a drug-addled naked moped ride through Athens is real peer-through-the-fingers stuff), but for all the abrasive humour, there’s a kernel of uncomfortable truth lurking in this anti-romance.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the lovely, tentative courtship at the heart of the terrific Palestinian comedy-drama Gaza Mon Amour, by twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser. A 60-year-old fisherman Issa (Salim Dau) is secretly in love with widow Siham (Hiam Abbass), but it’s not until he pulls a very priapic statue of Apollo out of the sea in his net that Issa plucks up the courage to speak to her.
Family relationships provide rich material: I particularly enjoyed Concrete Cowboy, in which Idris Elba stars as a member of a real-life community of African American “urban cowboys” who break and ride horses on the streets of north Philadelphia. David Oyelowo’s directorial debut, The Water Man, is a rousing family fantasy adventure that nods to 1980s classics such as Stand By Me. And Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, a tale of sisters set in an Irish border town, is superb: forceful, uncomfortable and fiercely intelligent.
And while it might not be the awards launchpad we are used to, Tiff is not without Oscar buzz. One Night in Miami, the feature film directing debut of Regina King, imagines an evening in which real-life friends Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X gather together. King’s deft handling injects energy and urgency into what could have been a wordy collision of egos; it looks like a contender to me.
The best of Toronto
Best feature films Limbo (directed by Ben Sharrock), Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart), Monday (Argyris Papadimitropoulos).
Best documentary Enemies of the State, 76 Days.
Best performances Nora-Jane Noone and the late Nika McGuigan, Wildfire; Amir El-Masry, Limbo; Shai Avivi, Here We Are; Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night in Miami.
Discovery of the festival Cathy Brady, director of Wildfire.
Most resilient hair Chloë Grace Moretz, who remains immaculately coiffed even after dangling from the underside of the wing of a flying plane and fighting a clawed demon in the utterly ludicrous but undeniably entertaining Shadow in the Cloud.
Best horse Boo, Concrete Cowboy.
Most trenchant political allegory Taiwan’s parliament overrun with zombies in Get the Hell Out; the inherited pain of the Troubles in Wildfire.
Most anxiety-inducing moment for germaphobes Kate Winslet pees on the beach, wipes her hands on her skirt and then breaks a pasty in half for Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite.