Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 25, 2011 6:18 am 
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A life through food, and its absence

Toast draws a surprisingly grim picture of a childhood with a droll, light touch, a combination that seems dryly English and may not go down well with the American audience. In fact US reviews of this film, adapted from a memoir, haven't been very favorable, while in the UK the book was a bestseller and the film, made for television, drew a record audience. Nigel Slater is a real person, a popular food writer and television commentator on cuisine now, the victim of a not at all supportive childhood then, in the Sixties. He has mythologized his life a bit, and the filmmakers and cast cooperate.

And so Ken Stott is uniformly grumpy and dyspeptic as Nigel's father, whom a Guardian writer described as "middle-class, middle-management, middle England, middle everything," and Helena Bonham Carter is deliciously campy and opaque as the cleaning lady who takes over the house after Nigel's nice, sad mother (Victoria Hamilton) dies of asthma. Of course this is an 11-year-old's point of view, so all we know is that she can't breathe. We're still deep in the culinary dark ages in England before Jamie Oliver and good organic produce in markets, before there were other interesting restaurants in London besides Indian ones. Nigel's mother never buys fresh food. Everything comes in a tin, and she doesn't even know how to heat them up properly. When the makeshift meal is a disaster, which is more often than not, she makes toast. Little Nigel 's repressive father thinks the boy is pleasuring himself under the covers at night but in fact he's peeking at pictures of good food and sighing with frustrated longing. He is becoming a foodie by having to dream of anything decent to eat.

The most delightful moments of Nigel's childhood are those when he gets a chance to taste something. As the young NIgel, Oscar Kennedy is remarkably nuanced, but overall he still emerges as a priggish, unsatisfied little snob, except when he's with Josh (Matthew McNulty), the warm, sexy gardener who is banished forever when it's learned that Nigel, already a gay young fellow, is peeking at him naked. After the war has gone on for a while between Nigel and Mrs Potter, the invasive and common cleaning lady whom he loathes, but who turns out to be as exaggeratedly good a cook as mum was a lousy one, young Nigel turns into Freddie Highmore.

And Highmore being who he is, the teenage boy, moved with dad and Mrs Potter to a house in the middle of the Midlands and now in high school, becomes simpler and happier. He chooses Home Economics over Shop and is mocked by the girls for doing so, but shines, though in his cook-off competitions with Mrs Potter on Wednesdays he always loses. It takes him months or years to master her secret and sublime recipe for lemon meringue pie. Tall, defiant Nigel kisses a sexy young man he meets at his part time cooking job in town, and that does it: once his dad has died from overeating Mrs Potter's delights, he runs away and gets a job as an apprentice at the Savoy. In the film, the real Nigel is the one who hires him. "You'll do fine, sunshine," Nigel tells Nigel.

It wasn't exactly like that. The real Nigel went to cooking school in the Midlands for a while. He also had two older brothers, never glimpsed here. And of course the solutions like the villains are too simple and easy. But as a depiction of the expressionistic world of childhood, Toast has moments when it's both accurate and moving. It is good at the physical details of the period and milieu -- at depicting the horrible wallpaper, the brown Rover, the upright vacuum cleaner, and all the other trappings of middle class Sixties England. Great use is made of a Dusty Springfield album. Food is both wonderful and hideous: though sex lurks in the background, cooking and eating are the dominant obsessions. When Nigel is moved to a remote crumbling brick house in the country and parents begin to dwindle away, I was strongly reminded of Andrew Birkin's terrific 1993 film version of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. There is the same surreal helplessness and defiance. There are many droll touches in Lee Hall's screenplay adaptation of Slater's book, like the wry, unexpected comments of Nigel's elementary school chum, Warrel (Frasier Huckle).

The UK audience for the BBC1 transmission of Toast on December 30, 2010 averaged 6.2 million viewers, a 25.3% share, with another 10,000 viewers watching a later showing on the BBC HD channel. The film's US theatrical release began September 23, 2011.

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