Getting to one of the world’s largest films festivals wasn’t an easy task this year.
Like many others, the Toronto International Film Festival was forced to drastically change traditions in 2020, opting for an entirely virtual event. This year, the Canadian festival is a hybrid of in-person and select films online.
It goes without saying that flying internationally, even to our neighbor up north, took more effort than it did pre-pandemic. Vaccine verification, negative COVID test, press accreditation, along with the usual documentation and much patience were required to be here on the ground.
Day one out on the streets of downtown Toronto, where the entire festival is centered, feels like an average Thursday. No crowds and no lines formed to see the first films, no one waiting to snap a photo by the giant electrical TIFF sign that usually marks off a blocked road, leading to what can only be described as a carnival atmosphere. You don’t see any of that this year — just masked citizens going to and from work.
What’s normally a sea of out-of-towners all wearing badges around their necks indicating why they're here (press, buyer, filmmaker, etc.) is absent. Your mobile ticket also is your badge this year. No concessions are open at theaters; and there are no hand-held tickets of any kind to exchange.
Now, let's get to the films.
TILDA SWINTON’S BIG BANG
The first film of the day stars Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton in “Memoria." Having already world premiered in Cannes, this marks its North American debut.
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates a film that tests the audience's patience, certainly early in the morning. His interest in sound is the running theme throughout the film, centering on a woman named Jessica (Swinton) who hears a disturbing sound. Living in Colombia with her family, she tries to understand why only she can hear this booming noise.
The audience, at least those who didn’t walk out in the first 45 minutes, was left to wonder if Jessica is simply losing her mind or if there's something ethereal or spiritual occurring.
Much of the film is Swinton walking around, appearing fascinated by people, music and every circumstance she encounters. In one of the only moments to derive a reaction from the audience, Jessica asks a local doctor for Xanax to help with her issue, for which she is prescribed Jesus instead.
“Memoria” is more interpretive than informative. It toggles between having a calming effect on the viewer — you could hear audible snores in the theater — and disturbing when the loud sound catches us and Jessica off guard.
“Memoria" will hit U.S. theaters Oct 5.
As evening settled over Toronto, the streets filled up with the usual Thursday night folks and festival goers getting in on galas and premieres. The first big one was the world premiere of the anticipated musical adaptation “Dear Evan Hansen," already damaged from the trailer that began the controversy about 27-year-old star Ben Platt’s age while portraying a high school senior.
“Dear Evan Hansen” suffers from far more than just age discrepancy. The obsessive close-ups of Platt as the friendless, on-spectrum title character are just one of many occasions when the film needs the audience to suspend disbelief for the movie to work. The thick makeup and bizarre hairdo along with the mannerisms Platt has chosen make his sing-acting appear deranged.
The musical performances sound good but are integrated into the narrative in a way that typically has one character singing while the others just stare. The implausibility of the story — teenager innocently gets mixed up in a fellow student's suicide — steamrolls into an eye roll, despite well-intentioned themes.
“Dear Evan Hansen” will release in U.S. theaters Sept. 24.
The final big debut on the first day was “Mothering Sunday," featuring Oscar winners Olivia Colman and Colin Firth in supporting roles as mourning parents in the 1920s. The real stars here are Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor as lovers separated by the class system, performing a good section of their screen time fully nude.
Director Eva Husson intertwines the past, present and future of housemaid/writer/future award-winning author Jane Fairchild (Young), whose life is forever changed by her secret affair with Paul Sheringham (O’Conner). Gorgeous English countryside, creative cinematography and a dramatic musical score thrust you into “Gosford Park”/”Downton Abbey” type scenarios, just with more skin.
The film relies heavily on editing to move back and forth between the decades, which undercuts a bit of the emotion. The character Jane is quite similar to Jo March from “Little Women,” transitioning her pain and loss into storytelling. By the finale, however, “Mothering Sunday” ends up feeling splintered and incomplete.
“Mothering Sunday” will release in U.S. theaters Nov. 19.
Final Thought: With the first day under wraps and TIFF struggling to work out technical difficulties in its online platform, bigger stars and films lie ahead in the days to come.