Directed By: SJ Clarkson
Written By: Lee Hall, adapted from Nigel Slater’s memoir
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, Freddie Highmore
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 9/13/11
Opens: September 23, 2011
The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but there is this big exception: it helps if you like the cook. Watching SJ Clarkson’s period piece, which takes place in small-town British Midlands during the sixties, you’ll be tempted to re-think the Scepter’d Isle as Europe’s prime location for godawful food, but Lee Hall’s script, adapted from food writer Nigel Slater’s memoir, makes us wait a while before liberating a gastronomy that would rival that of France and Italy—well, for desserts, anyway.
Not everyone can get away with selling a memoir: you have to do something, no matter how limited in scope, to make yourself famous enough to win over a skeptical publisher, who is, of course, concerned primarily with the bottom line. Nigel Slater is not particularly known here in the U.S. except by committed foodies who just might have read his two-volume “Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table.” The movie, however, is adapted closely from his autobiography, “Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger.”
“Toast” enjoys what is likely the best comic performance of veteran British actress Helena Bonham Carter in the role of Joan Potter, a cleaning woman who becomes the second wife of Nigel’s dad, played by Ken Stott, and stepmother of nine-year old Slater who morphs suddenly about two-thirds into the film as the older Nigel Slater, played by Freddie Highmore.
With the blessings of Liana Del Giudice’s creative editing which, in one scene, quickly updates the story by seven years via an array of luscious cakes, and Balazs Bolygo’s lensing, which affords us dramatic close-ups and an authentic period look, “Toast” opens on the relationship of the Slater family. They include Mum (Victorian Hamilton), Dad (Ken Stott), and Nigel (Oscar Kennedy). Mum is tragically dying from asthma, though her character is used not so much for tragedy as it is for a snarky put-down of her cooking skills. Even by British standards, there’s something off-putting about a Mum whose idea of cooking is to plunge tins of food into boiling water without even opening the cans, who refuses to buy the fresh cheese that her son longs for, and who has trained her husband to consider spaghetti Bolognese something wholly foreign, weird and inedible. The nine-year-old boy, who is already a budding foodie, must put up not only with inedible meals but with an irascible father, a loving but physically ill mother, and finally a obsessive, workaholic cleaning woman, Joan Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), whom he dislikes and against whom he competes for Dad’s affections by trying to bake better lemon meringue pies that she.
As a sixteen-year-old (Freddie Highmore), Nigel’s antipathy toward his stepmother remains unchanged, but he is emerging, after a stint in high school home ec. class, as a first-rate chef, though the film does not cover the years that find him becoming his country’s most celebrated food writer.
Freddie Highmore, who in my book was the cutest kid on the movie screens in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” has not lost his appealing physical features at age nineteen and, in fact, could be a poster person for the essential British look. He may be too slim to pass muster as a chef, but who cares when he turns out such a credible performance, while his earlier self portrayed by Oscar Kennedy is amusing, whether Kennedy is the dour kid fighting the cleaning woman (though his snobbery could give even lemon meringue an off-taste) and the school’s attempt to force him to drink milk, or the happy lad who dances with the mum he adores and will soon lose. Director SJ Clarkson keeps the proceedings light with just a few inklings of tragedy in a film that could give us more respect for British cuisine—if you eat at the Savoy Hotel, that is.
Unrated. 96 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online
Acting – B+
Story – B
Technical – A-
Overall – B+