Underrepresented Queer Stories Dominated TIFF—A Definitive Breakthrough for a Mainstream Festival

The Toronto International Film Festival has gone fully digital, and no longer attracts the stars it once did, but is still a vital venue for great cinema.

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Movies are back, and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is here to prove it.  After three years of slumber, when the Covid pandemic severely affected the making of movies and nearly fatally halted the public’s passion for going out to see them (the second most popular American pastime after baseball), the biggest film festival in the world is staging its first in-person gathering since 2019.  Cannes has chaos and cops on horseback. Venice has hookers on motorcycles booking dates on cell phones. But for 47 years, Toronto has captivated the movielovers. Millions of them, who stand in the lines, buy the tickets, jam the cinemas, and applaud everything they see. This year, that means more than 200 films from 63 countries in 10 days. In Cannes, they boo. In Toronto, they stand and cheer until the projectors stop running. That takes energy, because you begin each day with the first screening at 8 a.m., live on popcorn and Dove Bars, and fall into bed after midnight. Naturally, it’s impossible to see everything. As in the past, I’ve been forced to miss some of the most eagerly anticipated films, because the press screenings are all shown at the same hour, in cinemas that are five city blocks apart, and to request tickets for the public screenings, you waste the day standing in lines as long as a football field, only to be told when you reach the box office that they’re all sold out. To make things worse, TIFF has gone digital. That means there is no longer any such thing as a printed schedule, so there is no way to tell when or where anything is playing at any given time unless you drag around a laptop computer, which you then have to set down on the sidewalk while you write down the details. This is a comeback year, so everyone is anxious to overlook mistakes, iron out the kinks, and root for a return to past glory, but success is tough at TIFF and if you’re a visitor of a certain vintage, a generation removed from smart phones, digital shorthand and internet control, you might as well stay home. But enough about me.

Times have changed and so has TIFF.  The streets surrounding the festival headquarters are closed to traffic, everyone walks to everything, even the red carpets are no longer the same.  Instead of dirty red fabric, now they’re dirty red plastic. Glamour has faded. I remember the old days when everyone stayed in the same hotel, gathered in the bar at night where Clint Eastwood held court, and dined across the street in a spaghetti joint rubbing elbows with Joan Collins, while gawkers risked their lives sleeping all night in the street to get a glimpse of Tab Hunter. Now they stand politely in the sun, making do with Harry Styles.

Despite the cheerleading that promises business as usual, the effects of a punishing pandemic are still evident.  Store windows are boarded, many restaurants are closed, and hotels are easy to book. During a week at the hotel where I stayed, I never counted more than five customers per meal including myself. The cocktail parties and steak dinners sponsored by Hollywood studios to promote their films are history, and even the few stars who arrive to meet and greet do little more than hold a brief press conference after their film and head for the airport. Questions from critics and journalists that used to guarantee sparks are now submitted in advance (also digitally), eliminating any chance of spontaneity and candor. Some people still come to TIFF just to announce things. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former first daughter Chelsea showed up to plug their new streaming documentary series about women achievers called Gutsy, and Oprah Winfrey talked about a documentary she produced about Sidney Poitier.

So TIFF still has market value if not bold-face names. The festival, modestly founded nearly five decades ago by two film buffs who resented the fact that Toronto was ignored by the film industry, still calls itself non-profit, although it now generates $200 million a year and boasts dozens of high-profile, deep-pocket sponsors from Bulgari and Chanel to Visa and the Canadian government. What they write checks for is a cinematic cornucopia of something for everyone, from intimate art house oddities that will never be seen by wide audiences, to world premieres of commercial big-budget lollapaloozas. You can whine and debate the results until they lock up the last projector, but the only thing that matters in the long run is the movies. Good and bad, TIFF 2022 provided plenty of them.

To support diversity and inclusion (sometimes, I’m happy to say, at the expense of political correctness) TIFF was a forerunner in the Black revolution and is now doing the same thing for gay culture. More than a dozen entries about previously under-represented queer lives have dominated the scene this year—a definitive breakthrough for a mainstream festival.  For example, The Whale signals a highly praised return to the screen for Brendan Fraser, who toned his body for scantily-clad Hollywood hits like George of the Jungle and proved he could act in Gods and Monsters. Then he gained weight and dropped out of sight. This is his first film since 2008 and it’s a triumph. In The Whale, he plays a reclusive, gay 600-pound man dying of obesity and trying desperately to rejoin society and regain the love of his estranged daughter. He got a six-minute standing ovation in Venice and the audience in Toronto repeated the admiration. They also went wild for the Judd Apatow-produced comedy Bros, about the frank and overtly sexual relationship between two contemporary New York guys who defy gay stereotypes while negotiating the circuitous route through a gay relationship without the aid of a compass. The lovers are a queer 40-something achiever struggling to open the first LGBTQ museum, played by Billy Eichner, who wrote the screenplay based on his own experiences, and a square, hunky probate lawyer who digs Garth Brooks records while harboring a secret passion for making designer chocolates, played by Luke McFarlane. It’s an amazing film that rewrites history, and the first major big-budget commercial Hollywood studio film with an all-gay cast, proving that LGBTQ people are just like everyone else—funny, satirical, miserable, vulnerable, vicious, one-dimensional, and boring. Also hilarious.

The British may be mourning the loss of a queen, but that hasn’t diminished their capacity for telling earnest and compelling stories on film with admirable skill, dedication and polish.  Along with the surprising lineup of gay pictures, the most consistently powerful discoveries came from the UK, assuring us all of an exciting year ahead. Michael Grandage’s devastating My Policeman falls into both categories. It is, above all others, my favorite film at TIFF, and my favorite film of the year—a sumptuously mounted work of nuance and beauty about a forbidden love between three gentle, attractive people, set in 1950s England when same-sex relationships were illegal and spanning 40 years into the 1990s when everything changed except the deep feelings they still had for each other. The affection is shared by Tom, a naïve and uneducated cop, Marion, a charming schoolteacher, and Patrick, a sophisticated museum curator who changes their lives forever. Tom falls in love with both Patrick, who seduces him and awakens undreamed-of passions, and Marion, who marries him and teaches him the true meaning of devotion. Their story, which has destructive consequences through the years, is told in two separate decades through the prism of the senior halves of their lives, in a brilliant screenplay by Ron Nyswaner, who wrote Philadelphia. Two sets of extraordinary actors play the three leads at different ages, and although the big box-office lure is pop sensation Harry Styles as the younger Tom, he is buoyed by David Dawson as the dashing Patrick and Emma Corrin (who played Princess Diana in The Crown) as Marion. In the shift to the 1990s, after life has had its way with them, they are played by Linus Roache, Rupert Everett and Gina McKee with soulful maturity, still struggling to fill in the missing links and right the wrongs they’ve accumulated for 40 years. I’ll have more to say about the heartbreaking elements in My Policeman and Harry Styles’ contributions to it when it opens next month. Meanwhile, I must add that although I still find his popularity singing pop tunes an unsolved mystery, I find his acting chops a pleasant surprise.

Superior performances, in fact, elevate all the serious, emotionally vibrant British films I’ve applauded for the past week on their way to fall and winter release. Distinguished director Richard Eyre’s Allelujah, from a play by Alan Bennett, features Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi as two of the eccentric patients in a small Yorkshire hospital called the Beth, doomed to be demolished by indifferent bureaucrats more concerned with saving money than caring for the elderly. Also on its way to obvious award considerations at year’s end there’s The Banshees of Inisherin, Irish playwright-director Martin McDonagh’s somber examination of life on a small, rustic and remote island off the coast of Ireland where everyone knows everyone else so intimately than one character deviation can throw the entire thread of life’s routine in a tailspin capable of destroying lives and driving neighbors to madness. In a thrilling departure from anything he’s ever done on the screen, Colin Farrell won the Best Actor award in Venice for his deceptively pacifist rendering of an ordinary man who sinks into incurable depression when his best friend (Brendan Gleeson at the top of his game) stops speaking to him on the road or in the pub because he’s a dull waste of time, threatens to cut off a finger every time his former pal speaks to him first, and lives up to his word. Moving in poetic, understated silence toward unspeakable horrors that leave the viewer stunned, this is an unforgettable experience you carry around with you long after the final reel. Revered Oscar winners Olivia Colman and Colin Firth star in superstar writer-director Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, as the woman behind the concession stand in a legendary but outdated movie palace from a faded yesterday, and the manager who takes advantage of her troubled mental deficiency to abuse her. It’s a sad movie bathed in the marquee lights of the cinema about the magic of movies as a metaphor for escape from the ugliness of real life. Opening in December.

Other highlights: more great performances by Sally Hawkins in veteran director Stephen Frears’ true-life story The Lost King, playing Philippa Langley, the Scottish housewife and mother of two who becomes obsessed with the lies Shakespeare told about the maligned monster hunchback king Richard III and devotes her life to locating his grave under a parking lot in Leicester, solving a mystery that has plagued historians for 500 years, and finds herself in the process; The Menu, a diabolical culinary thriller with Ralph Fiennes as the illustrious but demented chef of the world’s most exclusive restaurant where the customers are served specialties of the house in a meal they won’t survive; Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain in The Good Nurse, the harrowing true story of Charlie Cullen, the quiet, charming, gentle nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at Parkfield Hospital, New Jersey, who turned out to be a secret serial killer suspected of murdering 400 patients throughout the country for no reason anyone has ever been able to explain. Under the sturdy guidance of Danish director Tobias Lindholm, Eddie Redmayne digs so deeply into the complexity of the character that he becomes inseparable from what he’s playing, and Jessica Chastain infuses an already suspenseful film with a very special kind of intensity as the good nurse who risks her own life to expose him.

 And there was more, but after seeing five movies a day for a week, I no longer have the strength or the eyesight to do anything more than surrender. Battered, blind and beyond exhaustion, at the point where I never wanted to see another movie as long as I live, the last thing I saw after two back-to-back screenings on my final day in Toronto—one starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, the other by Poland’s Jerzy Skolimowski with Isabelle Huppert and a donkey named EO–was a screen full of ads hawking  TIFF T-shirts, baseball caps and coffee mugs, and the words “Take the Festival Home With You”!  I understand TIFF’s instinct for survival in the form of self-promotion, but they have got to be kidding! Underrepresented Queer Stories Dominated TIFF—A Definitive Breakthrough for a Mainstream Festival