There’s no film festival quite like Toronto. Cannes may have the industry clout, Venice the glitter, gondolas and mosquitoes. But Toronto international film festival (Tiff) has the audience. And what an audience! In previous years, I found the sheer force of a Tiff welcome – loudly vocal, disconcertingly friendly, tirelessly enthusiastic – a little overbearing. But having attended the festival “virtually” for the past two years, it’s a joy to be back among a crowd that is so uninhibited in its passion, so knowledgable and curious about cinema.
The Tiff 2022 audience gave veteran director of photography Roger Deakins a rock star’s welcome when he briefly appeared on stage to introduce a film; leapt to its feet in a spontaneous standing ovation to honour Steven Spielberg before a frame of his film had even been screened. For this crowd, as one intense, highly caffeinated film student tells me, cinema is not just entertainment, it’s EVERYTHING.
Which is why it made sense for Spielberg, not generally a regular on the festival circuit, to launch his latest picture, the lush, semi-autobiographical opus The Fabelmans, at Toronto. Set in the post-second world war glow of 1950s Arizona, the film is, to put it simply, a story of finding truth through cinema. Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s alter ego in the piece, is a film lover from the moment that his mother (a luminous Michelle Williams) tells him: “Movies are just dreams that last for ever.” But not all dreams are comfortable. And viewing life through the lens of his little Super 8 camera gives Sammy a fresh perspective on his own family and the secret that threatens to tear it apart.
It’s a sweeping, enveloping joy of a movie, representing Spielberg at his most open and playful, a conversation between the artist and his art form. The autumn festivals – Venice, Tribeca and Toronto – are generally viewed as the starting blocks for awards season to come. But if the rapturous reception for The Fabelmans is anything to go by, the race for best picture began and ended with the first gala screening in Toronto.
The flip side of “the transformative power of cinema”, a popular theme in this year’s coming prestige releases, is Sam Mendes’s flickering and inconsistent Empire of Light. Set in a once-opulent picture palace on the seafront of an English south coast seaside town, the film weaves together the social and racial unrest of the 1980s backdrop with a story of aching loneliness and human connections.
Individual aspects and scenes are undeniably powerful – in the role of cinema duty manager Hilary, Olivia Colman is reliably excellent and the impressive Micheal Ward brings a soulful stillness to his performance – and this is certainly one of the more handsome films of the festival. But ultimately there is a mannered, disjointed quality to the picture, which fails to cohere to a satisfying whole.
The awards conversation – and yes, it’s a full six months away from the Oscars and yes, it is ridiculous to start speculating, but there you go – will also likely take in Eddie Redmayne’s extraordinary, contained performance in The Good Nurse. The first English-language film from Danish director Tobias Lindholm (A War), it stars Redmayne and Jessica Chastain in a thriller about a nurse who suspects her colleague of the murders of numerous patients. Always a physically expressive actor, here Redmayne zeroes in on tiny gestures, teasing out the chinks that permit a glimpse of something very, very wrong.
Toronto wouldn’t be Toronto without a few big, showy event movies. And one of the most enjoyable was Gina Prince-Bythewood’s muscular epic The Woman King. Starring a phenomenal Viola Davis as the general of an army of female warriors, the film takes a robustly revisionist stance on the kingdom of Dahomey, a powerful 18th-century African state. It’s a thrilling, gung-ho historical action picture of the kind we rarely see any more; I reeled with every furious blow it landed.
Another hotly anticipated title was Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s sequel to Knives Out, premiering three years almost to the day since the first launched at Toronto. Daniel Craig reprises his role as ace detective Benoit Blanc, but a whole new cast of characters populates his latest crime scene, notably Kate Hudson, who has never been funnier as PR car crash fashionista Birdie. Johnson loses the Rashomon-style structure of the first picture but ramps up the gag rate. It’s an absolute blast.
Another very sharp comedy, albeit a considerably darker one, is The Menu, from Succession director Mark Mylod. The film takes the world of haute cuisine and bastes, sautes and skewers it, all with a bracing side-serving of malice. Ralph Fiennes drips disdain as the autocratic Chef while Anya Taylor-Joy is a feisty pleasure as the one diner who doesn’t buy into his elaborate pretensions.
And finally, my discovery of the festival? Clement Virgo’s masterful drama Brother, which follows two West Indian Canadian siblings over a period of nearly two decades. It’s superb: a wide-ranging piece, elegantly structured and thoughtfully measured in its pacing. It screens in competition at the London film festival next month, so consider this an emphatic heads-up.
Best of the fest
The Fabelmans, directed by Steven Spielberg; Brother, directed by Clement Virgo.
Best good time
Glass Onion: so consistently, relentlessly funny it’s almost exhausting.
Michelle Williams’s effervescent fragility as Mitzi Falbelman; Eddie Redmayne’s contained threat in The Good Nurse.
Hong Chau: for the concentrated venom she pours into every scene of The Menu; for the grounding she provides as a nurse and friend in The Whale.
Time’s up award
Harry Styles’s acting career, pretty much DOA following his performances in My Policeman and Don’t Worry Darling. A boiled egg would have more emotional range.
Best surprise monkey cameo
The Fabelmans’ soft furnishing-bothering spider monkey.
Best onscreen chemistry
Lily James and Shazad Latif in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Shekhar Kapur’s adorable Anglo-Asian culture-clash romcom.
Woman of the festival
Sarah Polley for being classy, inclusive and generally very cool throughout the promotion of her well-received Mennonite drama, Women Talking.