2007 TIFF Update #7: "Looking for Oscar Gold"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It is often said that the Oscar race begins in Toronto and, as one looks through the lists of nominees and winners from recent years, many of those films have received either their World Premiere or North American Premiere at this festival. Some of the movies vying for awards consideration are backed by big studios with big money, but there are smaller candidates. Consider these three films: Starting out in the Evening, The Counterfeiters, and When Did You Last See Your Father?. Two of these films are hoping for acting nominations while the third will be angling for one of the Best Foreign Language Film slots.

Starting out in the Evening is as much a meditation on the craft of writing as it is a May/December romance. It's a gentle, unhurried drama about how people can connect with each other through conversation, nonverbal gestures, and writing. The pace is slow but the characters have enough depth and texture to keep the film from becoming boring. We understand these people and want to know what happens next. If there's a downside, it's that the ending is perfunctory and in some ways unsatisfying. It can be a problem when a director thinks he has provided closure when he hasn't, and that's what occurs here. There's a critical scene late in the movie that's awkward and unanchored and, while it resolves a major plot thread, it leaves a bad aftertaste.

Frank Langella, who started out his career as a sex symbol (remember Dracula?) then graduated to portraying heavies (both figuratively and literally - he's a big man), plays against type and, in doing so, gives one of the most impressive low-key performances of his career. Here, he's Leonard Schiller, a New York author whose four published novels are out of print. Leonard is not a well man and, before he dies, he wants to finish the opus he has been struggling with for the past ten years. Unfortunately, even if he completes it, it may not be publishable. A friend explains to him that the industry has changed. No one wants "literary" novels any more. Enter Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a motivated 25-year-old graduate student who want to write her thesis about Leonard. He's her favorite author and she wants the world to "rediscover" him. Initially, Leonard is reluctant to collaborate with her - he values his privacy. Eventually, however, Heather's "never say never" attitude and subtle sexual manipulation wear down his objections and he agrees. As Leonard opens up, the balance of power shifts to Heather. And, while she genuinely loves his books and respects him, she is an ambitious young woman.

Leonard's only daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), doesn't trust Heather, but she has enough problems in her own life to keep her from interfering too much in her father's. She's involved with Casey (Adrian Lester), her perfect match in every way except one. She desperately wants children and he is opposed to them. They broke up several years ago when an unplanned pregnancy led Ariel to have an abortion. Now, they have reached an impasse: they love each other but neither is willing to bend on the offspring issue.

Starting out in the Evening doesn't just pay lip service to the creative process, it spends some time with it. We are led to understand where Leonard's inspirations come from, why he writes when no one may read what he produces, why he has ethical qualms about commercialization, and how much of his own life has made it into his books. These are the things about him that fascinate Heather. She is not infatuated with Leonard as he is now. She is fascinated by the man who wrote her favorite book, the dashing young author whose picture she treasures. His view of her is not strictly paternal but neither is it that of a lover. The film is more circumspect than Venus in depicting the relationship between a young woman and a much older man but it is no less frank. This is not a Harlequin Romance, nor does it pretend to be.

The ending, as I mentioned, is a source of vague disappointment. It almost feels as if there's a scene or two missing. Also, while director Wagner generally does a good job balancing the Leonard/Heather and Ariel/Casey interactions, the back-and-forth cutting stops late in the film to allow the story to concentrate on one at the expense of the other. It's not a bad way to end things but it leaves the viewer feeling like something is missing. That concern aside, however, this is a well-made, thoughtful motion picture that should find an audience among those who are more interested in character interaction than plot development. Not a lot happens in Starting out in the Evening, but what occurs irrevocably changes the lives of the four principals.

Despite a title that makes it sound like a heist movie, The Counterfeiters is actually a World War II tale. It is not, however, a traditional war film. Instead, it takes a hard look at one of the most controversial and ethically dubious activities of the war: Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. Like Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, which explored the existences of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz, The Counterfeiters examines many of the same issues from a slightly different perspective. The bottom line is the same, however: is it morally reprehensible to exchange services that help the Nazis in return for a less harsh life?

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The Counterfeiters, from Austrian writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky, tells the true story of the greatest counterfeiting operation in history, dubbed "Operation Bernhard." Beginning in 1942 and continuing until 1945, the Nazis set up shops in the cell blocks of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to copy everything from identity papers to securities to cash (in particular, pounds and dollars). Their long-term plan was to supplement their military might with an influx of phony money into world markets that would cripple the economies of the United States and Great Britain. However, by the time the war had ended, very few counterfeit dollars existed. Among other things, The Counterfeiters explains why that was.

The movie opens with a brief scene in post-war Monte Carlo, then flashes back to the meat of the story. In the mid-1930s, Salomon Sorowitsch (veteran German actor Karl Markovics), a Russian Jew, is the world's best counterfeiter. He operates out of Berlin but has received word that the police are on his trail. Alas for "Sally" (as he is called), he is tempted to linger by a beautiful woman and is captured by Freidrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). He is shipped to a labor camp where his artistic ability earns him perks in return for painting portraits. Later, Herzog, now a Nazi officer, recruits Sally to his counterfeiting crew. In return for developing perfect copies of the British pound and American dollar, Sally and his fellow workers are allowed soft beds, good meals, acceptable working conditions, and the chance for a longer life. Sally doesn't hesitate to grab the opportunity. However, one of his fellow prisoners, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), demurs. In his view, helping the Nazis is betraying the Jews, even if it is just counterfeiting money. In his opinion, they should sacrifice their lives before allowing their captors to benefit from the fruit of their labors.

Although The Counterfeiters is based on Burger's autobiography, it's more about Sally than Burger. Sally is the one caught in the crosshairs of a moral dilemma. Although his #1 goal in life has always been to look out for himself, he also has a conscience and a code of conduct, and his actions fall into an area of ambiguity about which he feels uncomfortable. Burger sees things as more black-and-white. The shades of gray in Sally's world view are what make him the more interesting individual.

From an historical perspective, the story is interesting because it shows a different side of the war than what we're used to observing in motion pictures. Ruzowitzky depicts the care and attention to detail that went into the operation. The result was a pound note so authentic that it passed inspection by the Bank of England (who pronounced it to be "not a forgery"). This represents the backdrop to the struggle of conscience endured by the main characters, and that's where The Counterfeiters' core strength lies. There is no pat resolution because, although the internment in the camp ends, the emotional scars remain. (That's what the bookend sequences illustrate.)

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At first glance, When Did You Last See Your Father? might seem like another movies about sons and fathers. In a sense, it is, but it goes a little deeper. When Did You Last See Your Father? is about sons and how they see their fathers. I once read that, in the bloom of youth, children regard their parents as knowing all. As teenagers, they believe their parents know nothing. As adults, they think their parents might have known a few things after all. And, with the onset of old age, they wish their parents were still around so they could learn from them. This is the cycle this film presents.

When Did You Last See Your Father? opens in 1989 with author Blake Morrison (Colin Firth) receiving an award for excellence in writing. Within months, his father, Arthur (Jim Broadbent), will be stricken with terminal cancer. The story tells how Blake and those close to him - his mother, Kim (Juliet Stevenson); his sister, Gillian (Claire Skinner); and his wife, Kathy (Gina McKee) - cope with Arthur's decline and death. For Blake, this means getting in touch with his feelings and filtering through the memories of his father that define their relationship. Although not prone to outward displays of affection, Arthur may have been a better father than Blake gives him credit for. In the end, as Arthur fades away, losing pieces of his identity with every passing day, Blake must ask the essential question: And when did I last see my father?

The film transpires over two time periods - one is the present (1989) and the other is when Blake (Matthew Beard) is in his teens, worrying over whether the world will end as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a youth, Blake views his father with disdain. He sees Arthur as a petty schemer and a philanderer who may have fathered a child out of wedlock. Blake is sleeping with the family's pretty Scottish maid, Sandra (Elaine Cassidy), and he suspects his father would like to get into her bed. Looking back on events from a distance of more than 25 years, however, Blake sees things a little differently.

Most of When Did You Last See Your Father? feels and looks familiar. Director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Shopgirl) constructs the movie out of scenes that might have come from other, similarly themed motion pictures. What makes this movie unique and gives it poignancy is what transpires during the closing moments. The question asked by the title takes on deeper meaning once one has seen the film, and the way in which Blake must confront this provides When Did You Last See Your Father? with emotional power. This is a cinematic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.

The acting is top-notch. With a series of character roles in recent years, Colin Firth has managed to put the iconic Mr. Darcy behind him. Jim Broadbent, now the proud owner of an Oscar, creates a motion picture rarity: a father who is neither a saint nor a demon - one who contains his share of admirable and less-than-admirable traits but whose overall persona will remind many of their own father. Effective support is provided by Juliet Stevenson as Arthur's supportive wife, Gina McKee as Blake's spouse, and Elaine Cassidy as Blake's first love. (I would have like to have seen this subplot expanded a little.)

It's easy to make a movie about fathers and sons. It's much harder to make one that resonates with emotional honesty. When Did You Last See Your Father? does this right. It's the ending that brings everything together. In an era when conclusions more often spoil a motion picture than provide closure, it's a pleasure to watch a movie where this is done right.

© 2007 James Berardinelli