Film #243: Toast (2010)

toastdirector: S.J. Clarkson
language: English
length: 96 minutes
watched on: 9 November 2016

I didn’t know anything about this movie before watching it, except that my boyfriend had recorded it using a DVR device thing and it had a few famous actors in it – Freddie Highmore and Helena Bonham Carter among them. It turns out it’s a TV movie from the BBC and it’s about a famous chef Nigel Slater, who I’ve never heard of. OK, I exaggerate, I think I’ve heard his name a few times, but I certainly know nothing about him.

So I went into the movie knowing nothing about the life and times of the real-life man, nor the book it’s apparently based on, and the whole thing was a pleasant surprise for me.

It starts with the young Nigel, played by Oscar Kennedy, in the picture above, in the 1960s. He’s already obsessed with food and wants to be adventurous in the kitchen and learn how to make nice things, but his mum is unable to cook, and resorts to toast when she can’t cook something properly, hence the title. But she soon passes away from at-the-time-incurable asthma, and after a brief mourning period, his emotionally-distant dad shacks up with the maid, played by Helena Bonham Carter. He doesn’t really connect with his son, and the boy is constantly left in the dark. They move out to the country, which the boy obviously hates, but the dad doesn’t care, and the stepmother sees it as an opportunity to swipe any semblance of control from the boy. Then the boy grows up into Freddie Highmore in his late teens, and it becomes a full-on war between him and the evil stepmother, who’s actually good at cooking, and he feels that she’s stealing his dad from him.

It’s a foodie movie through and through – of course – and food is depicted very lovingly throughout. It’s also highly stylized, and reminded me of the stylized supermarket in High-Rise, still fresh in my mind. The tins of food in the shop at the beginning of the movie especially reminded me of this, stacked in impossibly neat columns. The 60s kids are dressed stereotypically, very prim, and the colour palette of the entire movie uses a lot of green and brown.

It’s also got a gay bent to it, right from the beginning when the ten-year-old Nigel eyes up his hot gardener changing clothes in the shed (it comes across more innocently than I’m describing it, honest!). He also gets bullied in school when he’s older. I didn’t think they’d follow through with it, so I was pleasantly surprised when the older Nigel finally meets a nice young man with whom he shares a kiss in the woods (it’s very PG, though), towards the end of the movie.

Obviously there are questions about the authenticity, as always happens with these types of movies, from the character cast in a conflicting role, in this case Helena Bonham Carter hamming it up as Nigel’s stepmother. Apparently in real life she also had two daughters, who complained about unfair representation. But in the movie there’s a war between her and Nigel for the dad’s heart through food, a stand-in for class conflict as I see it.

For all that, it’s a nice movie to watch, and I enjoyed it a lot. But it has one gaping structural flaw, one weak link, and that is Freddie Highmore. You see, the kid in the picture above, Oscar Kennedy, really carried the whole movie in the first two acts, and his acting skill is really high for someone that young. He is literally the hook that got me interested, as his depiction of the character was really poignant and well-measured. Usually in biopics when you have a kid actor growing up into a more well-known adult actor, the movie doesn’t wait until the third act to make the switch like in this one. Usually the kid does a few establishing scenes and the adult actor puts in the legwork. But here, once we’d spent two thirds of the movie with Kennedy, he suddenly grows up into Highmore. Highmore, by contrast, is completely wooden, and really lends no emotion to key scenes late in the movie. Helena Bonham Carter is left to chew the scenery by herself, trying to make up for Highmore’s emotional void.

So just for that ending, I was a bit disappointed. But I liked many aspects of this production – the visual design, the storyline, the foodie bits, the gay bits. It’s an interesting little movie, and I enjoyed it for what it was.

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