“This year, we have one of the strongest lineups we’ve ever had.” That’s what Piers Handling, retiring director and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival, told those of us in the audience at last night’s opening-night screening at the almost cathedral-like Princess Of Wales Theatre. It’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to say when you run a major film festival—the equivalent of a rock band perfunctorily insisting that tonight’s crowd in [insert hometown] is the best they’ve seen all tour. In general, TIFF isn’t known for possessing particularly discerning programming habits. While other fests may pride themselves on offering a heavily curated experience, TIFF aims to be something for everyone: a nearly two-week smorgasbord for movie lovers of all tastes. You don’t come here expecting to see nothing but great movies. You bring your appetite and hope for the best.
Thing is, Handling wasn’t entirely pulling our legs, not this time. At least on paper, the lineup of TIFF 2018 really is something. New films from major auteurs, promising award-season hopefuls, feted favorites of other festivals like Cannes and Venice, intriguing unknown quantities, appearances by two of Hollywood’s most enduring movie monsters: All are screening here in Toronto between now and the end of next week. Over the following eight days, yours truly will, as usual, do his best to report on the most highly anticipated titles—to find out if Handling’s lofty claim holds water, if an amazing lineup on paper is amazing on screen, too. (Sadly, I’ll be doing it solo this year, as my usual festival roommate and critical copilot Ignatiy Vishnevetsky isn’t here with me. I miss his takes already.)
Among the many intriguing entries in this year’s lineup are several movies from Netflix, savior or destroyer of cinema, depending on who you ask. Cannes made headlines earlier this year when it effectively banned the streaming giant from its official competition, taking a stance in favor of the big screen by demanding that all comp selections commit to a theatrical run in France. Netflix, incensed by the snub, pulled all of its titles—including new movies from Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, and Jeremy Saulnier—from the festival. Many are now appearing here in Toronto, which has drawn no such line in the sand, as lines in the sand aren’t really this fest’s style. TIFF has even opted to kick things off with a Netflix title—though anyone who’s sat through Borg Vs. McEnroe, The Magnificent Seven, or The Judge, to name recent examples, can attest that opening Toronto is far from a guarantee of prestige.
Befitting the ostensibly higher quality of the rest of the lineup, David Mackenzie’s action-packed period epic Outlaw King (Grade: C+) is a touch stronger than the average TIFF opener, but it still feels like a low bar for the festival as a whole to easily clear. (That may be the warped logic of consistently beginning with a mediocre movie—a tempering-expectations programming strategy by no means exclusive to Toronto.) Set in 1306, during the Wars Of Scottish Independence, the film is at once an unofficial sequel and a grubbier rejoinder to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, answering that Oscar winner’s notorious litany of historical inaccuracies with an at-least-marginally more truthful depiction of the conflict. But plenty of liberties are still taken (Edward I once again dies before his time for dramatic effect), and on a whole, Mackenzie’s movie, for all its Game Of Thrones grit, operates in basically the same cornball sentimental mode, taking as a given that the audience will automatically align its allegiances accordingly.
As many have pointed out over the years, the “brave heart” of Scottish history actually refers not to folk hero William Wallace but to his longer-living contemporary, Robert The Bruce, who Gibson’s film portrayed as a shameless opportunist and even a Judas figure. Set in 1306, both before and after Wallace’s death (which happens here entirely off screen), Outlaw King responds with its own hagiographic portrait, reclaiming Robert (Chris Pine) as a noble, conflicted warrior who swore fealty to England to end the violence, only to reignite the war for independence after killing his rival for the crown.
Pine can be a charismatic and even nuanced performer—he was particularly good in Mackenzie’s Hell Or High Water, tightening his movie-star swagger into a laconic cowboy soulfulness. But in Outlaw King, which rests entirely on his shoulders (dramatically but also financially—Mackenzie admitted as much during yesterday’s festival press blitz), there’s something vaguely anachronistic about him. That may partially be the product of a screenplay that presents the real Middle Ages rebel soldier as an enlightened proto modern gentleman; his relationship with Elizabeth de Burgh (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh, in a fairly thankless role), the Irish noblewoman who became his queen, seems particularly rose-colored. But Pine neither convinces as a conflicted peacekeeper nor a resolute resistance fighter; the former characterization leans on scenes of him watching from the sidelines as English soldiers storm violently through villages, his conscience theoretically stirred, while the latter is to be taken on the movie’s word, through scenes of various unshaven badasses pledging their lives to a guy who never does much motivational stumping. Overall, Pine comes across more like captain of the Lacrosse team than outlaw king, though interested parties may note that the director of Young Adam has once again convinced one of his stars to flash the full monty.
At least one can marvel a little at Mackenzie’s action scenes: visceral, chaotic, gorier even than Braveheart’s, presumably achieved on the highest budget this Scottish jack-of-all-genres has never secured. (There’s a hellish inferno in the woods, and the big finale, a recreation of the Battle Of Loudoun Hill, occasionally achieves an almost painterly apocalyptic grandeur.) In general, Mackenzie’s staging is robust, beginning with the agreeable showboating of the opening scene, a long single take that starts inside a tent where Robert and his fellow rebels are surrendering, only to move seamlessly into a charged sword fight in the blinding daylight outside and a demonstration of the crown’s mighty new weapon, a giant, flaming catapult. One misses, though, the director’s emotional sensitivity, which would generally shine through even in his most seemingly macho projects; only one moment, of Robert weeping in a cave at the memory of his wife first telling him that she “chooses him,” qualifies. Ultimately, Outlaw King doesn’t stray very far from the Braveheart mold, and actually suffers from an extended but less protracted running time. At times, the film feels more like the pilot for a Netflix TV series, and maybe that’s how it should have been conceived. Hell, it could have still played Toronto. Even television, after all, has a place at the festival of festivals.