Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Anonymous, The Turin Horse, The Deep Blue Sea
It's amazing how quickly this week goes by every year, but then, film festivals don't last forever; they strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. My lineup today was bookended by two films that, in very different ways, examine the transience of artistry—both period pieces, one with an eye on goofy fun and the other eager to make its mark on film history.
Let's start with the larky one. Roland Emmerich's Shakesperean-authorship thriller Anonymous stars Rhys Ifans as the tortured Earl of Oxford, whose station in life prevents him from putting his name on anything so vulgar as a play; therefore, he needs a front. While mainstream scholarship generally confirms Shakespeare's authorship, if you had to make a film that reduces the career of the world's greatest playwright to a series of conspiracies, double-crosses, swordplay, torrid affairs and assorted skullduggery, then the man who made Independence Day isn't the worst choice to direct it. After an excruciatingly overwrought interrogation scene at the beginning, the movie's steady supply of tongue-in-cheek humor kicks in; there have been few moments at this festival funnier than the scene in which Oxford's wife catches her husband at work. ("My God, you're…writing again!")
The Turin Horse's goals are, to put it mildly, loftier. The title refers to an animal once encountered by Nietzsche; soon after, the philosopher was diagnosed with mental illness. Director Béla Tarr (the great, 7.5-hour, bleakly funny Sátántangó) wants to know what happened to the horse. As in Robert Bresson's classic Au Hasard Balthazar, we see existence as experienced through the eyes of an animal and its owners. Bresson's film centered on a baptized donkey; Tarr's, on the other hand, exists in a godless, indifferent world, where the father and daughter who tend the horse never leave home and instead are seen, over the course of two and a half hours of stark black-and-white, engaging in repetitive tasks—getting out of bed, eating potatoes and so on. This sort of studied blankness can be intellectually defensible; see Cristi Puiu's Aurora, which shows viewers long stretches of nothingness and then retroactively imbues them with significance. But to my mind, the structure in The Turin Horse isn't actually particularly innovative, and the humorlessness makes the film punishing to watch. After the movie ended, Tarr assured a bleary-looking audience that the horse, at least, is in good shape today. "She is pregnant," he told the crowd.
The best film I've seen in this late stretch of the festival is Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play (previously filmed in 1955 with Vivien Leigh) about a woman (Rachel Weisz) whose fling with an RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston) leaves her torn between her new beau and her wealthy, much older husband (Simon Russell Beale). The source material isn't going to strike anyone as timeless, but the way Davies shoots it is extraordinary. His style is always lush and fragmentary, but here there's a real sense of old-Hollywood craftsmanship; the simple way Weisz is filmed lighting a stove, for instance, conveys all the information we need and nothing more. You'd never guess that this was written for the stage, and the material dovetails nicely with the concerns of Davies's autobiographical films (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes), which likewise explore Catholic guilt, the difficulty of reconciling social constraints and physical passion, and classical artistry. The use of Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra gives the proceedings a rich sense of melancholy that makes even some perfunctory exchanges seem like matters of life and death.