TIFF 2022 Report #5

Empire of Light (Mendes, 2022)

When directors make films extolling “the magic of cinema,” they must take extra care to have substantial points that go beyond the obvious assertions that cinema is a source of soothing escapism, or that it unites us in unforeseen ways. These are sentiments we take for granted. It is the prerogative of a good director to do away with obviousness and find ways of challenging their audience so that their film holds more merit than simply espousing banal platitudes, and unfortunately, this is exactly the reason why Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light fails to pass muster.

Quite simply, it has no interesting viewpoint. Its assertions—on cinema’s wondrous capacities, on race relations, on mental illness, on working-class living—are glassy-eyed and crudely drawn, lacking any true sense of insightfulness to make this project legible. Indeed, the very mixture of these loaded topics is all the more unsatisfying when Mendes does not know how to make them coalesce beyond checking the requisite boxes to give the film the aura of topicality. He cannot resolve them or their myriad inherent quandaries because he is more interested in waxen depictions that are content to stay squarely on the surface. And so, a Black man is violently assaulted because of his race; a woman off her medications has manic schizophrenic episodes; a projectionist speaks lovingly of his film reels. These scenes exist, are photographed and given the usual Roger Deakins touch, but they come and go without being given profounder understanding. All we get are the most basic takeaways: Racism is bad, mental illness is treatable, the mentally ill are not monsters, watching cinema does one a whole lot of good, and so on. All lessons that any person with even the slightest person with the capacity for thought could recite in their sleep.

It is such a shame that Mendes assembled a talented cast for such an excruciatingly unremarkable script. It certainly did not deserve the likes of Olivia Colman, who, while somewhat shakier than usual when depicting her character’s schizophrenia, is otherwise a wonderful and sensitive presence as theatre manager Hilary Small. Equally good is Micheal Ward in his first major starring role as the theatre’s new employee Stephen, whose chemistry with Colman does help to elevate the film in ways in which neither Mendes nor his script cannot. But even with their combined efforts, there is still so little to take away from this endeavour than the most rote and schematic bullet points. It’s a script that feels content to run on autopilot, thinking highly of its importance because it shows us “important” subject matter. But that’s all there is: It shows without having anything more to say. It simply asks us to absorb its importance and let it dissipate as we go on our merry ways, and that, to me, is an unconscionable display of laziness. For a film that believes in the magic of cinema, it is truly bizarre to see one so utterly devoid of the kind of magic it’s embracing.

Women Talking (Polley, 2022)

As a fan of Sarah Polley’s work, it was with a great sense of anticipation that I waited for her first directorial feature in a decade. Even more so when I learned that she would be adapting Canadian author Miriam Toews’s incendiary novel Women Talking, a compelling and topical work based on the true story of a group of Mennonite women who gather in secret to best determine their fates after being repeatedly drugged and raped by the colony’s men. Polley, who has expertly told female-centred stories in the past in richly hewn films like Away from Her and Stories We Tell, immediately felt like the right call to bring Toews’s inspiringly feminist work to the big screen. And even now, after having seen it, I would say the same, though not without reservations.

Let’s start with the good. Despite her long hiatus away from films, Polley shows no hint of formal or compositional atrophy. If you didn’t know better, you would not think this was a film made by someone who hadn’t been behind a camera in a while. There is a simple elegance to the way Polley films the characters in their conversational and rhetorical tangles, being generous enough to give them equal space and momentum as they carry on their debates while keeping the camera dynamic enough so that the limited setting does not begin to overwhelm proceedings as a too-static construct. Certainly, the film may not have a variety of spaces to explore, but Polley utilizes the few that exist well enough to avoid the feeling of a stodgy stage piece being captured on film. This is especially important considering that this is so dialogue-driven, with much of the true action only occurring towards the final two-thirds of the runtime. Polley’s choices, while not outwardly ostentatious, do maintain an impetus that also helps sustain the audience’s engagement.

The performances are also difficult to criticize, as it is clear that everyone here was committed to doing this script justice. There is a variety of approaches that will appease different types: Some performances throb passionately and furiously (like Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley); some performances are gracefully circumspect and unintrusive (like Rooney Mara and Judith Ivey); while others straddle a delicate balance, distilling emotion at just the right times (like Ben Whishaw and Sheila McCarthy). Even the younger supporting cast of largely newcomers finds ways to be distinct. Not every performance lands cleanly, but when taken with the weight of the story, they don’t all have to. A bit of unevenness actually serves the film more than it detracts.

Unevenness in some other areas do detract, however. Much will be said about Polley’s risky decision to denature the film of any bright or vivid colours, lending it an almost autumnal sepia-like tone that serves to mirror the innate sadness and precarity of the women’s position after such profound trauma. While I understood the intent here, in practice the film’s visual dullness becomes so unstimulating as to distract from the involving discussions at hand. A film need not look pristinely beautiful, but it does need to strike a good balance between visual and narrative engagement, and here Polley falters by putting too much stock in the latter. Aurally, too, there is a rare misstep from the otherwise dependable Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose plucky and incessantly rattling score almost harangues us with an overt twee folksiness that cheapens the film’s emotional core by making things sound almost like a tourist ad for a farm country funfair. I would have liked something completely minimalist—or even a film devoid of incidental music save for the religious hymns that the women sing together as a form of mutual strength and communion. Guðnadóttir’s score takes too much power away and adds little in its wake.

Finally, as an adaptation, Polley’s treatment of the novel does enough to be faithful and cinematic, but it also suffers a little in its condensation of the timeline to keep the runtime trim. This was one instance where I did end up wishing for a longer runtime, for some resolutions are arrived at more quickly than anticipated, leading to a slightly rushed feeling and thus a lessening of the overall impact. In the end, there is a lot here to like, and Toronto audiences liked enough things to secure the film’s runner-up berth in the People’s Choice contest. It is, after all, incredibly affecting material that strikes us with grief, rage and hope over all that transpires. But for all that Polley does well, there are some missteps here that force me to moderate my opinions. I admire very much what Polley and this film strive to do and wish it all the success as it heads into a highly competitive awards season. But I can’t feel more for it than admiration, which is inevitably disappointing for someone who has eagerly waited for Sarah Polley’s film career comeback.

Sick (Hyams, 2022)

The existence of Sick screams of inevitability. Of course someone would make a slasher that would be laser-focused on the early days of the COVID pandemic. Sometimes, screenplays just write themselves. That being said, the danger of either an underwritten or overwritten script would have curdled a good opportunity, and fortunately with Sick, Kevin Williamson and Katelyn Crabb have largely managed to avoid such a scenario. What they’ve produced is something lean, efficient and coherent, with a sense of topicality layered with a tongue-in-cheek waggishness that prevents things from feeling too “been there, done that.” While the all-too-familiar protocols of mandatory masking, social distancing and quarantining giving the action a clear sense of time and place, Williamson and Crabb take care to maintain an edgy rigour that allows us to look past the pandemic’s sense of familiarity and see it in different and novel lights—some serious, and some even sardonic. They don’t take away from COVID’s gravity, but because we’ve now lived through the worst of it and have come to accept its sense of permanence, they understand that a few well-aimed bits of levity can help balance the added horror of knife-wielding maniacs stabbing unsuspecting folks to death in the midst of a dangerous airborne virus wreaking its own havoc. It’s not Scream-level humour, but Williamson’s involvement with that franchise is felt in how adept Sick is in not devolving into tonal incoherence.

Another asset is having John Hyams’s dynamic direction. Known mostly for his Universal Soldier features, Hyams’s experience with pure action aids in keeping the fights and chases here nimbly exciting. The camera never goes too overboard with the jump scares, instead taking care to establish layouts and placements (temporally, geographically and in terms of characters) so that every encounter with the murderous villains packs on the thrills without sacrificing logic. Like any good slasher, Sick measures out its adrenaline spikes by pulling together its moving pieces harmoniously rather than haphazardly; the killer’s knife may slice the air with unpredictable menace, but all the interrelated connections that spill blood and keep us screaming are down to the director, and Hyams is more than up to the task to conduct this lethal symphony.

Will the final revelations here throw you for a loop? Probably not. In fact, it’s almost surprising how prosaic the killers’ motivations are, but perhaps there is a critique embedded in how we respond to the ending. We have seen and heard it all over the past few years of the pandemic, to the point where we may have numbed ourselves to certain grievances, but Sick’s final coup de grâce may be to show the true horror in that desensitized mindset: That there may be more monstrousness inherent in no longer caring about certain things as opposed to brutally acting on them. It leaves us questioning just how much the ordeal of the pandemic has changed our ways of thinking, and for that alone, Sick and its heart-pounding thrills really leave their mark.

Winter Boy (Honoré, 2022)

A staple in French queer cinema, Christophe Honoré has spent much of his career focusing on the sexual lives of adults—both queer and straight—and their efforts to build and sustain lasting relationships, be they with lovers, friends, or family members. His explorations filter between light whimsy and the messiness of indecision and regret, though his intentions are never dishonest, and his works are always in subtle conversations with each other. It is no surprise, then, that Honoré continues in a similar mould with Winter Boy, perhaps working in a more personal vein than usual due to the film hinging on a major loss: That of a teenage boy’s father, who dies in a car accident and whose loss upends his young son’s livelihood. Honoré also lost his father at a young age, so there is clearly a lot of pain and trauma invested here, which newcomer Paul Kircher handles impressively as Honoré’s teen alter ego.

I would go so far as to say Kircher is Winter Boy’s clearest virtue. There is no vanity in his performance; he is unafraid to walk around in baggy clothes and keep his emotions on a volatile precipice, almost always on the verge of breaking despite possessing a manic and restless energy that sees him constantly smiling and laughing at the world. This level of unpredictability never rings false in Kircher’s hands, as there is a credible yearning in his wiry physicality that speaks to a desire to live as a mature and sophisticated gay adult, but a desire which is constantly thwarted by the emotional instability caused by the loss of a beloved mentor. And so, Kircher’s actions as Lucas—oftentimes unreasonable, impetuous and extremely selfish—are, in their own way, an understandable symptom of a young man’s unmoored ethos, and Honoré never allows us to stray too far from Lucas’s side despite his constant mistakes and shortcomings. Nor does Kircher give us a chance to alienate us. He is too magnetic and inherently sympathetic to lose our favour.

When Kircher is pulled out of the equation, however, Winter Boy as a film ultimately feels more than a bit too tame and composed for its own good. Perhaps I am loath to admit it, but this is the kind of material that would have benefited from the no-holds-barred and vigorous emotional earnestness of a Xavier Dolan. Honoré is careful to keep this work contained outside of a few select breakdowns on Kircher’s part. From the deliberately lilac-hued colour grading to make the film look slightly cold and mournful, right down to the fairly staid mise-en-scène, there is something of an impasse between the volatility of the film’s subject and the muted way it depicts him. Someone like Dolan, on the other hand, would have made excessive and gratuitous artistic choices (and I’m sure his needle drops would have gone far beyond sampling Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark), but those choices would have also matched the full tenor of Lucas’s character—and, by proxy, Kircher’s performance. While I don’t think Honoré unduly limits Kircher, I do think Kircher could have benefited from a film that dared to match his capriciousness step for step, as it would have made the emotional grace notes of his performance that much more rewarding.