The Toronto International Film Festival has only just begun, but it seems safe to assume that nothing premiering here over the next week will inspire the same level of heated conversation that greeted the world premiere of a certain supervillain origin story one week ago today in Venice. What was striking and more than a little disheartening about those 48-hours-or-so of nonstop Joker discourse was that though only a handful of folks had yet experienced the film, everyone already seemed to have an opinion about it—and more than that, an opinion about the opinions. The DC faithful once again mobilized to trash anyone who had the temerity to negatively review a movie they hadn’t seen yet. But there were also plenty who seemed downright disappointed that critics on the ground in Venice mostly liked the movie, as if the preemptive detractors had a vested interest in it being bad. Was this a glimpse of film culture’s future— of a new dark age when actually, you know, watching a movie becomes a skippable step in picking a side in the hot-take debate?
It’s a dispiriting thought. Because though I’m not immune to speculating on a movie’s quality before I’ve seen it (the Cats trailer brought out the peanut gallery in all of us, didn’t it?), that instinct is generally overpowered by the flush of excitement I feel when the house lights dim, the projector flickers on, and something new begins to unfold in front of me. That sensation—call it the foolhardy hope for transcendence—is one that can trigger before any new film, if you let it, because you really never know what’s going to speak to you until it does. It’s certainly the main reason I relish going to film festivals: Every day offers multiple opportunities to be swept off your feet.
Joker, by the way, just won the top prize at Venice, a few minutes ago as of this writing. I have no idea if it’s any good. But I intend to find out soon; fresh off its hot-ticket Venice premiere, the comic-book character study is screening here in Toronto. It’s one of at least a couple dozen movies I hope to catch over the next few days at the so-called festival of festivals. TIFF, as I note every year, is hard to beat for sheer quantity of selections: Besides serving as a hub for all the favorites that played at other fests throughout the year—if you couldn’t make it to Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, or Telluride, the programmers here usually have you covered—Toronto also proves to be a consistent haven for plenty of living giants of international cinema, while also operating like ground zero for the fall movie season, supplying attendees a first look at most of the major films opening Stateside before the end of the year. I’ll try to find the time to write about many of them, and keep hope alive that some masterpieces await. Failing that, I’d settle for a happy surprise or two.
I’ll confess, I wasn’t expecting too much from yet another biopic on Ned Kelly, especially one from the guy who made the Assassin’s Creed movie. But True History Of The Kelly Gang (Grade: B) turns out to be an at-once straightforward and intriguingly unintuitive take on the life of the famous bushranger and Australian folk hero. There have been tons of films made about Kelly—including, in fact, what’s generally regarded as the very first feature film, the 1906 silent The Story Of The Kelly Gang. Adapted from the novel by Peter Carey, this new version adopts a veneer of grim and grimy authenticity, even as it takes some liberties with the history its title purports to be truthfully retelling. What’s interesting about the film is the way director Justin Kurzel, working from a script by Shaun Grant, relegates all of Kelly’s notorious exploits to the final passage of the movie—covering them in montage or eliding them entirely, in favor of the less frequently chronicled events that led up to them. (Tellingly, we don’t even see Ned and his brothers knock off any banks.)
You could classify the film, in other words, as a kind of origin story of an outlaw (hey, just like Joker!), and if that sounds like more tedious prequelitis, it’s refreshing to discover that True History has an actual perspective on the events of Ned’s formative years. We first meet him as a boy (Orlando Schwerdt), absorbing the harsh reality of rural Aussie life under his embittered mother (The Babadook’s Essie Davis, cast as every bit the Lady Macbeth figure the actual Lady Macbeth was in Kurzel’s take on The Scottish Play) and resisting the tutelage of various cruel and hardened men, including a constable (Charlie Hunnam) that pays his mother for sex and the eccentric outlaw (Russell Crowe) to whom she essentially sells him. Eventually, the film leaps forward to Kelly as an adult (George MacKay from Captain Fantastic), still trying to avoid becoming the desperado everyone in his life seems to be conspiring to turn him into.
The implication is Kelly was a product of his environment—that the tensions of colonial Australia played out across the narrative of his life, essentially sealing his fate and locking him into a self-fulfilling prophecy. That makes it a different kind of myth than the gunslinger variety: the story of a boy waging a losing battle for his own soul against destiny, culture, history, social status, family expectation, and bad influences. In that context, it makes sense that this True History would largely treat Kelly’s crime spree like an afterthought; the real battle, it suggests, was in his fight to stay off that life path, which means the film essentially climaxes with him giving in to that dark fate. Anyway, the outlaw stuff has been dramatized to death, and Kurzel wrings plenty of drama out the prelude to it, thanks to an outstanding cast (Crowe hasn’t been this engaging in ages, and Nicholas Hoult makes for a deliciously detestable villain), as well as the middle ground the director stakes between grit and grandeur, period-specific verisimilitude and the hushed awe of legend.
Admittedly, the final stretch does feel rushed. And as theoretically refreshing as it is to see a movie ignore the oft-told tales of Kelly’s felonious misadventures—as well as the accompanying celebrity they earned him—I can’t help but wonder if a better version of True History Of The Kelly Gang would run another hour, giving us the full epic of his life. Similar thoughts crossed my mind during another history lesson that screened at the top of TIFF: Armando Iannucci’s earnest Charles Dickens adaptation The Personal History Of David Copperfield (Grade: B-), which attempts the ambitious feat of cramming all 600-plus pages of source material into a brisk two hours of screen narrative—and, somewhat remarkably, actually pulls it off. But while the act of gracefully condensing this big book into a coherent movie is indeed impressive, the truth is that said movie does end up feeling a bit like glorified cliff’s notes, albeit ones enlivened by Iannucci’s gift for volleying banter.
This counts as something of a major change of pace for the Veep creator, pulling him out of the halls of power and away from the backstabbing and venom-spewing political numbskulls that have capered through his previous work. (Perhaps The Death Of Stalin simply took that mode of midnight-black satire as far as it could go.) Not that there’s no backstabbing or spewed venom in the 19th-century story of David Copperfield (a spirited Dev Patel), who rides up and down the ladder of social strata, from birth to mid-adulthood, from Suffolk to London, encountering a large, eccentric cast of characters—played here by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whisaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar, Iannucci favorite Peter Capaldi, and more— along the way. It’s a fairly faithful retelling, deviating most notably in the colorblind casting, a casual diversification of Dickens’ ensemble that adds another layer to the retained original commentary on class and privilege.
Like a tonier literary adaptation coming to theaters next week, and which I’ll share some thoughts on tomorrow, The Personal History Of David Copperfield is a plot machine. One can’t help but wonder if this would work better on the small screen, where more of the texture and detail of Dickens’ world-building could be preserved and spread out across a roomier runtime. Certainly, that medium might better suit Iannucci’s televisual visuals; with the exception of a few set-collapsing flourishes, like a scene of David’s idyllic vacation in a boathouse being intruded upon by a metaphorical giant hand, the director works in his usual walk-and-talk mode. But the film’s charms are real and nimble, provided by the author but also by Iannucci, whose affinity for silver-tongued exchanges proves a surprisingly compatible bedfellow to Dickens’ signature generosity of characterization. Their sensibilities merge agreeably.
Likewise, it’s fun to see Kore-eda Hirokazu try something different with The Truth (Grade: B), his first film since the lovely, Cannes-winning Shoplifters and also the first he’s made outside of Japan. The opening shots—train passing through one quadrant of a Parisian courtyard, trees swaying in the wind—mark this immediately as the tranquil work of a director who’s been gently depicting the shifting dynamics of family for most of his career. Yet the material turns out to be intrinsically French: the faintly meta tale of a blunt, aging movie star (Catherine Deneuve) shooting a sci-fi project that in some way mirrors her own anxieties about getting older. Juliette Binoche, French acting royalty of another generation, plays her screenwriter daughter, and much of the film is an alternately caustic and affectionate skirmish of wits between these two world-class performers—a hard gift to turn down. The Truth, like so much of Kore-eda’s work, is fundamentally minor; it has one of those slightly maudlin piano scores that he favors, much too blatantly announcing the wistfulness. But it’s also witty and sometimes touching (Ethan Hawke, as the Binoche character’s husband, carries his own poignant gabfest associations into the movie’s world), and seeing the director’s usual style applied to a whole different culture provides fascination enough. Not surprising, maybe, but welcome.