Sunday, September 18, 2011

“Toast” – Movie Review



This past weekend, the fall semester of my movie class resumed its bonus screenings and we saw the British drama Toast  starring Helena Bonham Carter; the movie is based on the memoirs of Nigel Slater, a noted food writer and television personality in The United Kingdom. 


When a 9 year old boy loses his mother, his widower father hires a housekeeper to care for them – but will the little boy be able to overcome his anger towards this woman who seems to be trying to replace his late mother?


In 1960’s England amidst a backdrop of Dusty Springfield recordings, 9 year old Nigel Slater falls in love – with food.  Despite the fact that his loving mother is quite possibly the worst cook in the entire United Kingdom, Nigel passionately desires that which he cannot have – a delicious meal.  While most little boys might spend nights under the covers with a flashlight furtively stealing glimpses of scantily clad women in magazines, Nigel prefers to spend those stolen moments groaning orgasmically at pictures of dishes like boeuf bourguignon, spaghetti Bolognese and crème brulee. 

Tragically, the hungry little boy’s mother eventually passes from a severe case of Emphysema and he is left to live with his cranky, hostile father – who, by the way, can’t cook, either.  Although Nigel tries to make the best of things by teaching himself to cook, it soon becomes clear to his dad that they’re in over their head here, so he hires Mrs. Joan Potter (Carter) to keep house for them.  A chain-smoker and a woman whom Nigel describes as “common”, the boy takes an instant dislike to her because he feels that she is trying to step into his late mother’s shoes.  For all of her faults, however, it must be admitted that Mrs. Potter does have one saving grace:  she’s an amazing cook – and with this talent, she can be partially forgiven. 

A lonely widower, Nigel’s dad buys a new house in the countryside, where he has convinced Mrs. Potter to leave her husband and be their live-in help.  In this location, they have their privacy and are far away from prying neighbors.  On top of that, however, they are in the middle of nowhere, which Nigel hates – not to mention the fact that he must now attend a new school, losing his old friends.  To make matters worse, the tension between himself and Mrs. Potter only increases.  Eventually, the father marries Mrs. Potter, causing Nigel’s competitive nature to come out when he tries to out-cook her.  But will he be able to make peace with his new stepmother and in the course of doing so, win the favor of his father?


If you are a regular viewer of Anthony Bourdain’s television show “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel, then you may be familiar with the term “food porn” – that is to say, photographs of food so delectable that they arouse some deep, dark visceral reactions in the viewer.  Such “food porn” is especially appreciated by a community known as “foodies”, who are unashamed of their obsession (and if you don’t believe me, try doing a search on the Internet for food blogs).  Clearly, this movie is designed to appeal to such foodies because of the amount of food porn it contains – the lemon meringue pie alone will make you want to leap out of your theater seat and take a great big bite out of the immense movie screen. 

Despite the proliferation of foodies in our culture, this movie will likely find great difficulty in attracting an audience.  For one thing, Helena Bonham Carter is the only recognizable name in the cast and while her role is crucial to the story, it’s not all that big in the grand scheme of things because it’s actually Nigel’s story.  Another obstacle for this movie finding an audience in the United States is due to the fact that Nigel Slater is largely unknown here, although he has long been highly regarded in the UK for his writing on food.  Also, the movie basically makes an attempt to villanize Carter’s character of Mrs. Potter, while in fact, she’s really not at all evil, except in the eyes of the young Nigel. 

While the majority of the class really seemed to like the movie, virtually no one knew of Nigel Slater.  Perhaps much of the appreciation for “Toast” is due to the fact that this is a very different story which takes viewers into an unfamiliar world.  The film’s screenplay was written by the same person who wrote the script for “Billy Elliott” and it also touches on Nigel’s homosexuality; some of the scenes may actually be a little uncomfortable to watch, depending on your level of tolerance.  Early on, we see the 8 year old Nigel lusting after the family’s landscaper; later, we see him as a 17 year old surreptitiously kissing a young man he meets at work.  While the romantic yearnings of an adolescent may not be a huge issue, the presumed lust of a pre-pubescent schoolboy was somewhat of an unpleasant experience for me – but as always, your mileage may vary. 


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