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TIFF: In Defense of the Conventional Movie, from ‘Spotlight’ to ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’

TIFF: In Defense of the Conventional Movie, from 'Spotlight' to 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'

Thousands congregate at the annual and venerable and essential Toronto International Film Festival, just celebrating its 40th year, in search of many things.

Toronto is a global all-you-can-eat buffet. The attendees at the public festival might be looking for a glimpse of a real live movie star, the first look at a talked-about fall blockbuster, or exposure to a film from an unfamiliar culture. The press are there to publicize the offerings. And Toronto is also a market, where rights to independently-made films can be sold to territories large and small — while deals are being made and announced for future films.

Amid all the din and buzz it can be hard to sort one’s genuine responses — especially when dear friends want to demonstrate their superior knowledge and instincts. As I was about to enter my first screening of the festival, a friend asked what I was going to see, and when I answered “The new Wenders,” he grasped my arm and said, sincerely, “I’m SO sorry.” (It turned out that while he was not far off the mark — Wim Wenders’ astonishing and revelatory 3D work in “Pina” did not translate to “Everything Will Be Fine” — he hadn’t actually seen the movie.)

And on the next day I ran into a friend in a hallway where she was going into a theater on the left, and me on the right. “What are you seeing?” she asked. “Brooklyn,’” I said. “But isn’t that a COSTUME drama!?” she replied, with evident concern.
Well, yes, it was and is. And I watched it with a continuous smile on my face, responding to the confident and relaxed filmmaking of director John Crowley, the smooth and thoughtful storytelling of Nick Hornby (screenwriter) and Colm Toibin (novelist), the contrasting settings of a timeless bucolic Irish village and Brooklyn in the Fifties.

I was especially charmed by the witty and appropriate costumes — hey, I’m a girl, and one of the main settings is a swanky Brooklyn department store — I guess they had swanky Brooklyn department stores in the Fifties. Saoirse Ronan glowed as the central character — you can see her thoughts play across her expressive face — and she was ably supported by an intelligent cast, both known — Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters — and unknown: Emory Cohen as her Italian-American beau.

After seeing it, I thought I’d enjoy reading the book — a reaction I felt even more strongly after seeing Terence Davies’ Sunset Song,” based on a 1932 novel by Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon, referred to as a “classic” in the helpful and encyclopedic 464-page Toronto catalogue, but title and author were both news to me. “Sunset Song” may be Davies’ most conventional outing, after such reveries on the Great Britain of his childhood as “Distant Voices, Still Lives”; “The Long Day Closes”; and “Of Time and the City,”  but it continues his explorations into period adaptations with strong performances, as in “The House of Mirth” and “The Deep Blue Sea.”

As with his other films, music plays an important role — one might say that all his films are secretly musicals. Somewhere the young woman (Agyness Deyn, a model-actress in her first leading role) of a cruelly patriarchal Scottish farming family finds the strength to defy her upbringing and oppressive father (Peter Mullan, in a ferocious performance) and live her life in her own way. The countryside is gorgeously shot. In a charming fillip reminiscent — only to me, who’d seen it just the day before — of “Brooklyn,” her love object is noticeably shorter than she is.

READ MORE: Toronto Review: Terence Davies and Agyness Deyn Conjure Tremulous Beauty in ‘Sunset Song’

Leaving post-World War II Brooklyn and post-world War I Scotland for America within recent memory (2001 Boston), one of the best surprises of Venice/Telluride/Toronto was Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight.” Again, it’s perhaps his most conventional outing, after movies often described as quirky, including “The Station Agent,” which introduced Peter Dinklage to a waiting world, “Win Win,” starring Paul Giamatti, and “The Cobbler,” Adam Sandler’s foray into magical realism. “Spotlight,” in the grand tradition of journalism movies whose apogee is “All the President’s Men,” follows the dogged work of a special investigative unit of the Boston Globe as it spends many months uncovering sexual abuse by Catholic priests and its subsequent coverup by the Church and its complicit attorneys.

The propulsive script is well-served by a cadre of intelligent actors, including Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci — every so often yet another familiar and welcome face, such as Billy Crudup, Liev Schreiber, Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou, and Paul Guilfoyle, will pop up in a smaller but still masterfully-portrayed role. You always feel that you’re in good hands. For those who know the outcome, the working-out of the story may feel inevitable, but is still eminently satisfying, in a real movie-movie way. The Pulitzer awarded to the Globe for its work may soon be joined by other glittering prizes, prognosticators feel.

READ MORE: TIFF: Director Tom McCarthy Puts ‘Spotlight’ On Sexually Predatory Catholic Priests

In a madly buzzing film festival, where everybody is looking for the shock of the new — the musical directed by the Hong Kong director of violent thrillers (Johnnie To’s “Office”), the hard-core pornography shot in in-your-face 3D (Gaspar Noe’s “Love”), the messy dystopian J.G. Ballard fantasy featuring movie stars by a director previously of cult films with unknowns (Ben Wheatley’s “High-Rise”), one can be almost apologetic about confessing one’s sincere enjoyment of a conventionally-told tale.

I knew nothing about The Man Who Knew Infinity before I saw it (one of the privileges of no longer reading the trades), and its director, Matthew Brown, was an unknown quantity — I’d never heard of his previous film, “Ropewalk,” made in 2000. I’m also a mathematics idiot, and “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is about a young Indian prodigy whose higher mathematical theories somehow propelled him from poverty in Madras to the height of philosophical academia in Cambridge before and after WWI. (Yes, another costume drama — and, like “Spotlight,” “based on a true story.”)

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the festival for me (along with a three-hour-and-twenty-minute documentary about a group of 70s artists and filmmakers in Cali, Colombia, called “It All Started at the End.” But that’s another — upcoming — story). The main performances, by an earnest Dev Patel and a resonant Jeremy Irons, were compelling and satisfyingly intertwined. As with “Spotlight,” they were accompanied by welcome supporting players, notably Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam, Stephen Fry, and an array of English character actors with wonderful faces and voices.

Cambridge, as Toby Jones says to Dev Patel when its beautiful grey-stoned buildings and velvety lawns are revealed to him, has its desired effect. The script kept me, the aforementioned math idiot, sufficiently in the picture to understand the difference between a theory and its proofs, and caring about the recognition of this unknown and prickly Indian and his famous and prickly mentor. Especially in this moment, a hundred years after its setting, the story of immigration and the racism, both casual and specific, that greets Patel in England, even intellectual England, resonates. (Interestingly — at least to me! — this is the only movie of these four that fails the Bechdel test: that two women in a movie talk to each other about something other than a man. The mother and wife of Dev Patel’s character are skillfully sketched, but their conversations are indeed only about him.)

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” kept me entertained and interested right through its (inevitable) ending crawl, telling what happened to its protagonists (along with actual period photographs of them, a trope I find satisfying) after the events of the movie. It turns out I like a well-made crawl that follows a well-made movie. It turns out I like a varied movie diet, with movies that satisfy as well as challenge.

A few days later I ran into the estimable and intelligent Scott Foundas, late of the Society of Lincoln Center and Variety, and told him I was writing a piece called In Defense of the Conventional Movie. “Ah, then you liked ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’!” he said. “Yes!!”

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