Toronto 2021 preview: Screen’s guide to the Gala and Special Presentations | Features

After its slimline 50-film edition last year, Toronto International Film Festival (September 9-18) is beefing up again, with a muscular line-up of titles. Screen previews world and international premieres across the main sections, including Galas, Platform and Discovery.

Galas

Belfast (UK)
Dir. Kenneth Branagh
Belfast-born Branagh presents what he describes as his “most personal film”, centring on a boy’s 1960s childhood amid the conflict of the Northern Ireland capital. Newcomer Jude Hill stars in the lead role, alongside the more seasoned Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds and Branagh regular Judi Dench. Tamar Thomas, Laura Berwick and Becca Kovacik (who all produced or executive produced Branagh’s All Is True) produce alongside Branagh, with backing from Northern Ireland Screen. Focus Features will release in the US in November, and Universal Pictures International distributes internationally.
Contact: Focus Features 

Dear Evan Hansen (US)
Dir. Stephen Chbosky
Chbosky brings the Broadway musical hit to the big screen in TIFF’s opening film. Tony, Grammy and Emmy award winner Ben Platt reprises his stage role as an anxious high-school student aching to fit in amid the chaos of the social-media age. Chbosky (The Perks Of Being A Wallflower) does youth angst well, and has assembled a cast that includes Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever. The film shot in Atlanta in 2020 and is produced by Marc Platt (La La Land) and Adam Siegel (Drive). Universal Pictures will distribute in all territories and releases in the US on September 24.
Contact: Universal Pictures

The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (UK)
Dir. Will Sharpe
Sharpe co-directed (with Tom Kings­ley) quirky UK indies Black Pond (2011) and The Darkest Universe (2016), created TV series Flowers for Channel 4, and won a TV Bafta for his role in miniseries Giri/Haji. His third feature stars Benedict Cumberbatch (recipient of the Tribute Actor Award at this year’s TIFF) as the titular English artist who rose to prominence at the end of the 19th century with his surreal cat paintings. Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough and Toby Jones also star in this SunnyMarch and Shoebox Films production, backed by Studiocanal, Film4 and Amazon Studios. Studiocanal releases in the UK, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand; Amazon releases in the US.
Contact: Studiocanal

The Forgiven (UK)
Dir. John Michael McDonagh
This fourth feature from the UK’s McDonagh is an adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel about the impact of an accident on the lives of locals and western visitors attending a luxurious house party in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains. The cast includes Jessica Chastain, Ralph Fiennes, Caleb Landry Jones and Saïd Taghmaoui, and backers include Focus Features (which pre-bought the world excluding US), Brookstreet Pictures (which produces alongside McDonagh and Elizabeth Eves’ House of Un-American Activities), LipSync Productions, Film4, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology and Assemble Media. The pandemic imposed a six-month hiatus to the Morocco shoot last year, finally wrapping in October.
Contact: Focus Features

The Good House (US)
Dirs. Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky
Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline and Rob Delaney star in this adaptation of Ann Leary’s novel about a New England realtor whose chance encounter and rekindling of romance with an old high-school flame forces her to face decades-old issues. Forbes (Infinitely Polar Bear) and Wolodarsky (Sorority Boys) co-direct and Tribeca co-founder Jane Rosenthal and Aaron Ryder (Arrival) produce. The film shot in 2019 in Nova Scotia, Canada, and wrapped post in 2020.
Contact: Jessica Lacy, ICM Partners, Rena Ronson, UTA Independent Film Group 

Jagged (US)
Dir. Alison Klayman
US documentary filmmaker Klayman premiered her two best-known features Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) and The Brink (2019) at Sundance, and launched Take Your Pills (2018) at SXSW. With Jagged, which Klayman co-produced with Ringer Films, she profiles Canadian singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette, who became a global phenomenon in 1995 when she released her multi-platinum album Jagged Little Pill. The film features interviews with Morissette, alongside exclusive archival material.
Contact: HBO

Lakewood (Can)
Dir. Phillip Noyce
Naomi Watts stars as a mother who races against time to save her child while authorities pursue an active shooter in their small town. Noyce filmed during the pandemic and wrapped in Ontario last October. Producer Dylan Sellers’ Limelight fully financed Lakewood with Boies Schiller Entertainment. UTA Independent Film Group, Endeavor Content and CAA Media Finance jointly represent US rights, and Mister Smith has sold key territories including France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain (Wild Bunch), the Middle East (Jaguar), Taiwan (Long Shong) and Benelux (Belga Films).
Contact: Mister Smith Entertainment

The Mad Women’s Ball (Fr)
Dir. Mélanie Laurent
Actress Laurent’s fifth feature as director sees her return to Toronto, where she launched 2017’s Diving. Adapted from Victoria Mas’ 2019 novel Le Bal Des Folles, the 19th-century tale follows a woman (Lou de Laage) who is unfairly institutionalised at a Paris asylum, and plots to escape. Laurent also stars alongside Emmanuelle Bercot in this production from Alain Goldman’s Légende Films. Amazon Studios has worldwide rights, and releases on September 17.
Contact: Amazon Studios

One Second (China)
Dir. Zhang Yimou
Two-and-a-half years after its withdrawal from 2019’s Berlinale Competition, Chinese director Zhang’s long-delayed film finally makes its way to North America as Toronto’s closing night gala. One Second opened in China in November 2020 where it grossed $20m; Neon recently took North America rights. Partly a tribute to cinema, the story focuses on a labour camp fugitive during the Cultural Revolution who risks everything for a stolen film reel. It is produced by Huanxi Media and Edko (Beijing) Films. The cast includes Zhang Yi, Liu Haocun and Fan Wei.
Contact: Antoine Guilhem, Wild Bunch International

Silent Night (UK)
Dir. Camille Griffin
Beginning her career on camera crews (including on Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace) before directing a number of shorts, UK filmmaker Griffin makes her feature directing debut with a comedy about an extended family coming together for Christmas dinner in the country. Produced by Matthew Vaughn’s Marv Films and Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray’s Maven Screen Media, Silent Night features Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Annabelle Wallis, Rufus Jones, Lucy Punch, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Lily-Rose Depp, Sope Dirisu and Griffin’s son Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit) among its ensemble cast.
Contact: Endeavor Content

The Survivor (US-Can-Hun)
Dir. Barry Levinson
After memorable turns in The Messenger, Hell Or High Water and Leave No Trace, could this be the performance that finally propels Ben Foster onto the A-list? Formerly titled Harry Haft, The Survivor hails from Bron Studios and New Mandate Films and recounts the life story of Haft, who survived Auschwitz by winning brutal gladiatorial contests and became a post-war boxer in New York. Danny DeVito, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, John Leguizamo and Peter Sarsgaard also star. Production took place in Hungary and New York in 2019, the same year Endeavor Content introduced the project to Cannes buyers.
Contact: Endeavor Content 

Special Presentations

Benediction

All My Puny Sorrows (Can)
Dir. Michael McGowan
In this adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel, Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill play very different sisters — one a suicidal concert pianist, the other a children’s author with a complicated life — who contemplate their father’s long-ago suicide and their strict Mennonite upbringing. Tyler Levine of Carousel Pictures produces with Patrice Theroux of Sugar Shack Production and McGowan of Mulmur Feed Co. The film shot in North Bay, Ontario, in 2020-21 and has backing from Telefilm Canada, Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation and Ontario Creates. Mongrel Media will distribute in Canada.
Contact: Voltage Pictures

Benediction (UK)
Dir. Terence Davies
A Quiet Passion, Davies’ feature about poet Emily Dickinson, made a pit-stop at Toronto following its 2016 Berlinale launch, and his Sunset Song premiered there in 2015. Now the veteran UK filmmaker offers this self-penned biographical drama about First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden, with a cast that includes Peter Capaldi and Jeremy Irvine. Mike Elliott produces for Emu Films (TV’s Small Axe), with backing from the BFI, BBC Film, Myra Entertainment and Lipsync. Following Toronto, Benediction will compete at San Sebastian.
Contact: Bankside Films

Charlotte (Can)
Dirs. Eric Warin, Tahir Rana
Keira Knightley leads the English-language voice cast for this animated feature about Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish artist who comes of age on the eve of the Second World War. The January Films, Les Productions Balthazar and Walking The Dog production has backing from Telefilm Canada, Umedia, Eurimages, Serendipity Point Films, Ontario Creates, Screen Flanders and Sons Of Manual, among others. Jim Broadbent, Sam Claflin, the late Helen McCrory, Sophie Okonedo and Mark Strong are also in the voice cast, while Marion Cotillard leads the French-language version. Knightley and Cotillard are both executive producers.
Contact: Ashley Alexander, Sierra/Affinity

 

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over (US)
Dirs. Dave Wooley, David Heilbroner
Heilbroner — whose credits include 2010’s Stonewall Uprising, which he co-helmed with Kate Davis, and 2018 Oscar-nominated short Traffic Stop, which Davis directed and he produced — teams here with debut feature director Wooley. The pair spent the last five years filming this documentary about the legendary hitmaker, who speaks about her music and Black and LGBTQ+ activism. Wooley produces for his own Wooley Entertainment, and Geralyn White Dreyfous and Regina K Scully are the executive producers.
Contact: Endeavor Content

Encounter (UK)
Dir. Michael Pearce
Pearce put himself on the international film map with 2017’s Toronto Platform premiere Beast, going on to win the Bafta for outstanding British debut feature, among other accolades. US-shot second feature Encounter — originally called Invasion — is a sci-fi thriller co-written with Joe Barton (creator of TV’s Giri/Haji), and starring Riz Ahmed (who heads the jury of the Platform section this year) as a decorated Marine running from an alien threat with his two young sons. The cast also includes Octavia Spencer and Rory Cochrane. Raw’s Dimitri Doganis, Piers Vellacott and Derrin Schlesinger produce with backing from Film4 and Amazon Studios.
Contact: Amazon Studios

The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (US)
Dir. Michael Showalter
The director of The Big Sick turns his focus to the rise, fall and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Jessica Chastain, who also produced, plays Tammy Faye who, along with her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), rose up in the 1970s and ’80s to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network before financial impropriety and scandal brought their empire crashing down. Production took place in North Carolina in autumn 2019 and the cast also includes Cherry Jones, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi and Sam Jaeger. Searchlight Pictures will release in the US on September 17.
Contact: Searchlight Pictures

The Guilty (US)
Dir. Antoine Fuqua
Fuqua’s Training Day played TIFF 20 years ago, he opened the festival with his remake of The Magnificent Seven in 2016, and he returns with his remake of Gustav Möller’s 2018 Danish thriller. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a police dispatch operator trying to save a desperate caller — although nothing is as it seems. Gyllenhaal and his Nine Stories business partner Riva Marker are producers alongside Bold Films, Amet Entertainment and Fuqua Films. The top-notch cast also includes Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano and Peter Sarsgaard. Netflix has worldwide rights.
Contact: Netflix

The Humans (US)
Dir. Stephen Karam
US playwright Karam’s The Humans won the Tony award for best play in 2016. He now makes his feature directing debut with its adaptation, which takes place at a family’s Thanksgiving celebration in a rundown apartment in downtown Manhattan. Steven Yeun (Minari) stars alongside Beanie Feldstein, Richard Jenkins and Amy Schumer. Eli Bush produces.
Contact: A24 

Inexorable (Bel-Fr)
Dir. Fabrice du Welz
Following a Locarno bow for his last feature Adoration (2019), Belgium’s du Welz returns to Toronto, where his previous films Calvaire (2004), Vinyan (2008), Alleluia (2014) and Message From The King (2016) all played. Billed as a “venomous thriller”, Inexorable stars Benoit Poelvoorde as a novelist seeking inspiration for a follow-up to his previous bestseller, who encounters a mysterious teenage girl. Jean-Yves Roubin and Cassandre Warnauts produce for Belgium’s Frakas Productions in co-production with France’s The Jokers.
Contact: Playtime

The Middle Man (Nor-Can-Den-Switz-Ger-UK)
Dir. Bent Hamer
Norway’s Hamer premiered his last two features in Toronto — 1001 Grams (2014) and Home For Christmas (2010) — and returns with a drama starring Don McKellar as a man who takes a job in an economically depressed US town. His remit: to act as a middle-man communicating bad news to its citizens. Hamer’s first English-language film since Factotum starring Matt Dillon in 2005, The Middle Man is a multi-territory co-production including Canada’s The Film Farm, Denmark’s Profile Pictures, Germany’s Pandora Film Produktion and Hamer’s Norway-based Bulbul Films.
Contact: The Match Factory

The Starling (US)
Dir. Theodore Melfi
In this fantasy comedy drama from Melfi (Hidden Figures), Melissa McCarthy plays a woman who has suffered a loss but finds renewal after starting a battle with a territorial bird in her garden. Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Veronica Falcon, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline also star. Producers are Limelight’s Dylan Sellers and Chris Parker, and Goldenlight Films’ Melfi and Kimberly Quinn. Netflix has worldwide rights.
Contact: Netflix

Wolf (Ire-US)
Dir. Nathalie Biancheri
George MacKay (1917) leads this thriller about a man who believes he is a wolf. After being sent to a clinic, he resolves to escape until he meets Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp). This second feature from Biancheri (2019’s Nocturnal) was the first film supported by Screen Ireland to complete production during Covid-19. Jessie Fisk and Jane Doolan produce. Bankside Films and CAA licensed North American rights to Focus Features, and Universal will distribute across most of the rest of the world.
Contact: Focus Features

 Profiles by Nikki Baughan, Charles Gant, Melissa Kasule, Jeremy Kay, Wendy Mitchell and Silvia Wong

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