When it comes to spotting awards contenders at the Toronto International Film Festival, it helps to start by finding the films that started off as books. Adaptations don't always make the best movies, but at least you have a pretty good idea of what you're in for. Take "Pride & Prejudice", for example. Focus Features just unveiled an intoxicating new version of Jane Austen's beloved novel starring Keira Knightely that stands a fair shot at a Best Picture nomination (insofar as it's better than a couple of last year's Best Picture nominees, although it remains to be seen what competition the fall season holds).
There's nothing like the sound of bustling corsets and rattling teacups to thwart this critic from connecting with stuffy period pieces, but "Pride & Prejudice" is different in that you're immediately immersed into Austen's world. It helps that Knightley's Lizzie is such a modern character, brash and unapologetic about speaking her mind, although it's director Joe Wright's modern take on musty history that does the trick. Rather than basing the film's look on formal portraits of the time, Wright dug a little deeper to find how normal people behaved. The result comes within a whisker's breadth of matching Ang Lee's sublime "Sense & Sensibility" for its sheer romantic and literary appeal.
Alas, the festival's other adaptations don't hold up nearly as well. The buzz is deservedly bad on Myla Goldberg's "Bee Season". Honestly, could such phony family drama, an 11-year-old word whiz, and Richard Gere really spell anything but disaster? Meanwhile, in "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story", Michael Winterbottom tackles the impossible task of adapting Laurence Sterne's 1759 novel by crafting a Charlie Kaufmanesque satire of the filmmaking process itself. Clever as it is, the prank never really pays off.
Still, Toronto's biggest mis-adaptation is "Everything Is Illuminated", a reduction of the celebrated semi-autobiographical novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which an awkward Jewish American travels to the Ukraine to unearth a powerful family secret. I had high hopes for this movie, considering that actor Liev Schreiber ("The Manchurian Candidate") had chosen it to be his directorial debut. Unfortunately, Schreiber's stage experience undermines the story's screen-worthiness. His comic timing is all off, while the emotional scenes fall flat. Elijah Wood is terribly miscast, his already oversized owl eyes magnified even more behind thick glasses. Schreiber should've played the lead himself, but found someone else to direct.
[ Peter Debruge is a freelance film critic who writes for The Miami Herald, Premiere and Life magazines. ]