At the Toronto International Film Festival: The Passion of Terence Davies, The Sadness of Canadian Middle Age

sunset_song

The Toronto International Film Festival is a tricky festival to navigate, a bloated beast with hundreds of screenings, more sections than I’m probably even aware of, and such a variety of work (mainstream, arthouse, experimental, animation) that it hardly feels like one festival, but several concurrently running events. As a result, no one is likely to have the same experiences. It’s up to the festivalgoer to create their own TIFF. Personally, I slaved away for about six hours crafting my ideal schedule, working my around scheduling conflicts, squeezing in every inch of great cinema I could. Or so I thought. Maybe it’s a reflection of my own foolish taste that I’ve nearly struck out in the early going in downtown Toronto, with hardly any great films to report on, and more duds than I’d like to even divulge. I can’t help but imagining there’s a critic writing his or her festival dispatch at this very moment, raving about the masterpieces they’re seeing by the dozens. Such is the festival life.

There are, fortunately, some highlights to share. First up, Sunset Song, the highly anticipated new film from British director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, The Long Day Closes). Davies has been trying to bring this adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel to the screen for over a decade. And from its opening image, a beautiful sweeping shot over a golden field that arrives at the protagonist, the beautiful and modest Chris (Agyness Deyn), one feels the urgency and conviction that lies behind it.

Indeed, the film is a passionately realized drama that accumulates emotion with every scene until its tremendously moving finale. Chris lives with her siblings (we only really get to know her older brother) and parents in the rolling hills of Northeast Scotland. Her domineering and abusive father, played brilliantly by Peter Mullan, has a venomous impact on everyone in the family. This patriarchal stranglehold largely characterizes her adolescence, but as she segues into adulthood, the film shifts from oppression to hope with the discovery of love. As the opening shot suggests, Chris has a deep connection with the land, and in spite of her capable brain and academic potential, seems contented with her relationship with her home and the surrounding landscape, rendered stunningly by Davis and cinematographer Michael McDonough. In the film’s second half, just as things are looking good, World War I arrives and threatens to destroy her newfound happiness. Sunset Song becomes a devastating anti-war film, intently and delicately focused on the experiences of this one character and the effect of the Great War on her in her far-flung home.

hammer

A bit more off the beaten path is How Heavy This Hammer, a great new film from Toronto-based filmmaker Kazik Radwanski, whose debut feature Tower marked him as a rising Canadian talent. Hammer delivers on that promise. It’s a low-key, understated character portrait of a middle-aged family man named Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem) who seems casually ambivalent towards life, and disconnected from his fatherly and husbandly duties, spending much of his leisure time absorbed in a online fantasy game, or playing rugby with pals and getting drunk. On a narrative level, there’s not too much going on here. We observe as Erwin goes through his daily life, disillusioned except when he escapes his domestic and professional obligations—but Radwanski’s sensitive and empathetic approach effectively brings the viewer into this mundanity and helping us understand the silent pressures and tensions of this unremarkable man and his existential woes. As a result of his closed-off behavior, things start to fall apart with his marriage, and his mid-life crisis fully sets in, leading him to moving out of the house and getting a new dog. Van Cotthem gives an involving performance that, while not especially emotive, communicates this man’s inner world. It’s Radwanski’s directorial approach—nothing flashy but always formally thoughtful—that makes this minimal story into something memorable and affecting, and refreshingly unhip in contrast with so much of in the indie fare we see too often. How Heavy This Hammer seems to be driven sincerely by human compassion and curiosity, and firmly establishes Radwanski as one of Canada’s best working filmmakers.

The 2015 installment of TIFF began on the 10th and continues through the 20th; check back early next week for Adam Cook’s festival wrap-up.

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