TIFF #5: Dancers, Deception and a Debut

Yesterday, I found myself living my TIFF life of years gone by. That is to say: I saw three films in one day (still, not much compared to the four-a-day schedule I sometimes kept) and realized, by the end of the third screening, perhaps I don’t have the stamina or desire to do full-time festival-ing these days. Because, by day’s end, I was sooooo looking forward to having almost a full day off today.

I’d begun early, with a 9am screening of Mao’s Last Dancer (7/8), which proved to be worth the very-early hour I left my home for the brisk, 45-minute walk to the theater… which was packed when I arrived. As jaded as I’ve become over the past several TIFFs, it still warms my heart to walk into a downtown theater at 8:30 on a weekday morning to find it full. Directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), the film tells the true story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), who was raised in Communist China in the 1960s and ‘70s, but who found a whole new life after being invited to study with the Houston Ballet in 1981. Beautifully shot and acted, and featuring some gorgeous ballet alongside lovely performances, the film had a halfway standing ovation as it ended. I think I cried throughout its entire final 15 minutes, so I was grateful for the lengthy post-film Q&A, which allowed me to collect myself before having to head out into public. Screenwriter Jan Sardi, who based the film on Li’s memoirs, was on hand and spent a good half-hour answering questions, stating that the filmmakers would love for their project to get the kind of post-TIFF acclaim that last year’s Slumdog Millionaire did.

Next, I picked up a ticket to Glorious 39 (7/8) because I needed a filler film for the afternoon, and it turned out to be a great choice. As we know, selecting a film “just because it fits” is often a recipe for disaster (or a walk-out), but I was very pleasantly surprised. Set in 1939 England, on the eve of WWII, the lavish period drama centers on Anne (Romola Garai, who was fantastic), an actress and adopted daughter of an aristocratic family that includes patriarch Alex (the always-wonderful Bill Nighy), siblings Celia (Juno Temple) and Ralph (Eddie Redmayne), and aunt Elizabeth (Julie Christie). The family quickly finds itself enmeshed in political intrigue and secrets after Anne stumbles upon mysterious government recordings, and the action unfolds in an oddly creepy, well-paced, whodunit kind of way. I’d worried that I might be bored, given its rather beefy running time, but I was engaged for the duration. Director Stephen Poliakoff, and co-stars Garai and Nighy (whom I love!), were also on hand for a bit of a pre-screening chat, which was nice.

Then I had a half-litre of ice cream for dinner. Whatever. It was delicious.

My last film of the day was The Unloved (6/8), the directorial debut of actress Samantha Morton, who based the film on her own experiences growing up in the British social-services system. Unspooling in a rather poetic, non-traditional way (i.e., this isn’t a cookie-cutter film structure), the movie follows 11-year-old Lucy (Molly Windsor, in a truly lovely performance), who’s removed from the care of her abusive father (Robert Carlyle) and placed in a group home. There, she’s taken under the wing of her much-older, very troubled roommate (hugely watchable and natural newcomer Lauren Socha), and sort of “lost” within the bureaucracy… all the while wanting to go live with her absentee mother (Susan Lynch). It’s not a particularly happy film, per se, but speaks to the resilience of a young girl stuck in a bad situation. There’s an underlying sense of dread that runs through the film – did she remember to lock that bathroom door??? will one of those older boys harm her in some way??? – and i think that served the narrative really well. I know it kept me squirming in my seat.

An emotional Morton, who seemed very moved by the experience of screening her film for us, fielded questions from the audience afterwards, and it was one of those times where hearing a filmmaker’s vision helps galvanize the entire experience. There were things I didn’t understand about the movie – like its deliberate manipulation of sound – so it was great to have her explain the hows and whys of her project.

And then, rather pooped after more than 12 hours out on the fest trail but grateful for the quality of the films I saw, I headed home.

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