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    Cate Blanchett in Veronica Guerin. in Toronto Film Festival, Day 4
    Cate Blanchett in "Veronica Guerin."

    Toronto, Day 4

    Substantial female roles for adult actresses are among the highlights at the Toronto Film Festival, including Cate Blanchett in "Veronica Guerin" and Anne Reid in "The Mother."


    Sunday, September 7

    Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, Ontario, Sept. 4-13, 2003.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 1
    Our correspondent at the Toronto International Film Festival unearths promising new work from Germany and Korea.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 2
    A pair of gorgeously clinical works from Peter Greenaway are balanced by a music groupie-mentary from L.A. and a knockout martial-arts picture from Thailand.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 3
    Another beautiful film from Korea, Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter .. and Spring," shares a bill with Errol Morris's timely examination of the Vietnam War and the latest from actress of the moment Scarlett Johansson.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Days 5&6
    A documentary that uses the movies to trace the architectural history of Los Angeles is a highlight among the out-of-the-way offerings at the Toronto Film Festival.

    Although women in significant authentic roles might be missing on American screens most of any given year, terrific actresses in attention-getting parts were in no short supply at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Not only is the Festival the starting line for many Hollywood leading ladies' march on Oscar; also on view are rareties where older women are allowed to be sexual, and political dramas empowered by the feminine.

    "Veronica Guerin" (Touchstone Pictures) is based on the life of the courageous Irish journalist who was slain because she wouldn't back off a story. Cate Blanchett imbues the title character with such intelligence, charm and tenacity, she makes readily understandable Guerin's ascent from one-time publicist to front-page investigative reporter. Director Joel Schumacher is adept at balancing the varied emotional tonalities of the material, which in other hands could be sensationalized (and indeed was — in 2000 Joan Allen starred as a character closely based on Guerin in "When the Sky Falls," an Irish-U.S. co-production that suffered from split personality. Was it bio-pic, or police procedural? Allen was fine in the role, but got only half the screen time Blanchett has in "Veronica Guerin.").

    By starting the film with Guerin's roadside assassination on June 26, 1996, Schumacher and his screenwriters, Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue, show us immediately just how high were the stakes in the journalist's war on the drug lords of Dublin. Then the story flashes back two years earlier, with Guerin's first exposure to the devastating impact drugs had made on the ground zero of inner-city youth. Given that we now know, if we didn't already going in, what Guerin's fate was to be, it is through seamless craft that the film builds escalating suspense along with a clear-eyed yet sympathetic portrait of a conscientious, thorough, but also proud, willful and daring professional. Her career progresses in fits and starts; as she becomes a household name through exposing the drug gangs' inner workings, she gets hamstrung by Ireland's then highly restrictive libel laws. Quiet spells of domesticity enjoyed with her family are disrupted by phone threats and physical violence. Caution is thrown aside as her defiant personality embraces a crusader's zeal. The real Veronica Guerin's death was horrific and tragic; the movie is tragedy in the literary sense, as every step of the way we are shown how valiant actions, small mistakes and base betrayals determine a sorrowful end.

    Anne Reid in The Mother. in Toronto Film Festival, Day 4  
    Anne Reid in "The Mother."
    This is the part that has Oscar written all over it; Cate Blanchett has the title role, is in almost every scene, and her portrayal is luminous and heroic. And her beauty is dazzling. On the face of it, a sure thing.

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there's "The Mother" (Sony Pictures Classics), a solid drama leavened with wit, compassion and rueful humor. Anne Reid plays May, and her title character is anti-heroic, tentative, and old — which by many standards, especially Hollywood's, means no longer beautiful. What's bold about the film, directed by Roger Michell from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, is its refusal to fall back on the cliches that beauty is only skin-deep, it's the inner beauty that matters. The little there is within May that's lovely has been nearly extinguished by years spent in a desiccated marriage and her failure as a parent. Her surface might appear soft from the padding of age, but there's flint beneath.

    May's name provides a clue as to what will happen following a disastrous trip with her husband to London to visit the kids and grandchildren. When Toots (Peter Vaughan) dies of a heart attack after too much exertion, May experiences a late-life spring. Not being able to face an empty house alone in the suburbs, she decides to move in with her son, the financially overextended Bobby (Steven Mackintosh). There she becomes aware of the contracter working on Bobby's home, Darren (Daniel Craig) — who happens to be involved in a rocky affair with May's neurotic daughter Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw). With her children alienated and wary of the looming burden she represents, May is increasingly drawn to the open, warm and unpretentious Darren, some thirty years her junior.

      Leonor Silveira in A Talking Picture. in Toronto Film Festival, Day 4
      Leonor Silveira in "A Talking Picture."
    Both director and screenwriter excel at delineating relationships. Michell's previous box office hits, "Changing Lanes" and "Notting Hill," showed he could develop characters adroitly within the confines of genre. Here, with art-house favorite Kureishi, whose early screenplays for "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" helped establish Stephen Frears' career, Michell reveals a more lyrical touch with potentially somber material. His decision to have cinematographer Alwin Kuchler shoot in available light pulls us closer to May's vacillating emotions. As she unexpectedly rediscovers the liberating joys of sex, it's not only the floodgates of passion that swing wide — May explores her abilities as a writer and artist, and faces the consequences as well. In Kureishi's writing, drama arises from his characters leaving the beaten path to follow their impulses. Crowned by Anne Reid's indelible performance, "The Mother" shows it is most often fear, not age, that is the barrier to a fulfilled life.

    Age is certainly no barrier to Portugal's most illustrious director, 94-year-old Manoel de Olivera, whose latest work, "A Talking Picture" ("Um Filme Falado"), was on the must-see lists of many festival regulars. The title aptly describes the movie's concept: a history professor (Leonor Silveira) takes her daughter on an educational cruise around the Mediterranean enroute to Mumbai, where the husband and father awaits. At each port of call we get staggeringly beautiful views of one ancient seat of civilization after another, accompanied by the running commentary of the professor and the helpful guides they encounter.

    At successive stops the passengers are joined by three celebrated women, played by Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli and Irene Papas. The ship's captain (John Malkovich) is much taken with the young mother, and invites her and her child to share his table with the divas. It is at this juncture that the film drifts a little, as the women embark in their native tongues on long discourses about the decline of civilizations and languages (especially Greek). We are told that the English language has now colonized the world, but the captain — the one native English speaker — delivers a howler that nearly upends everything. Try as he might, the highly gifted Malkovich can't overcome being badly miscast. The ending, although logical — particularly if one interprets the three illustrious women passengers as the Fates — is abrupt. Nonetheless it stands in ironic counterpoint to the breezy travelogue that preceded, as a stark reminder that empires are forged in the blood of conquered and conqueror alike.

    Hanna Laslo and Yael Abecassis in Alila. in Toronto Film Festival, Day 4  
    Hanna Laslo and Yael Abecassis in "Alila."
    At the other end of the Mediterranean, Israel has produced the talented filmmaker Amos Gitai, whose previous films "Kadosh" and "Kippur" have been well received at Cannes and in this country. Taking a breather from his earlier serious themes, with "Alila" the director attempts ensemble comedy with an improvisational feel. The intersecting lives of ten main characters in a working-class neighborhood unfold through long unbroken takes, creating a kind of chain: players rotate in and out of scenes like a tag team. My favorites were Hanna Laslo and Uri Klauzner as a divorced couple held together by their shared concern for their army deserter son. Their acting is very naturalistic, and their comic timing is spot on. But many of the scenes are repetitive and go on longer than a comedy warrants. On the whole, "Alila" can be best described as Robert Altman goes to Tel Aviv. As I'm not one of Bob's biggest fans, that's not a compliment.

    Next: Toronto, Days 5 and 6 serve up "The Singing Detective," "Young Adam" and "Los Angeles Plays Itself."

    Festival articles



    Mayor of the Sunset Strip

    Diminutive Rodney Bingenheimer hangs out with a lot of big-time musical icons in "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," a documentary that overrelies on his pixie-ish proximity to fame and his quizzical personality.


    Memories of Murder

    A constantly deceptive detective story in which bad cops who think they're doing good work look for a serial killer in all the wrong places.

    OCTOBER 16, 2003

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