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TIFF, Day 10: Winnie, Nuit #1, The Deep Blue Sea, Albert Nobbs

There was a trend to the movies on my screening list for day ten at TIFF. In all four of the films I attended, a lead actress shone in a plum role; however, all four of cases also fell short of providing a film to match her talents. I started the day with a double shot of Canadian content and began with Winnie, the Canadian-South African co-produced biopic about Winnie Mandela, the political activist and former wife of President Nelson Mandela, played by Jennifer Hudson.

Winnie might not win Hudson a second Oscar, but all those who scoffed at Hudson back in 2006 and deemed that she was not a serious and/or talented actress will surely eat crow after attending a screening of Winnie. (However, the film could score Hudson her first Genie nod.) Hudson dives into her subject with a dual edge and reveals the bipolar sides of Winnie, both humane and maniacal. She does her subject justice and she gives a performance that refuses to shy away from the controversy of the former Mrs. Mandela. Most importantly, Hudson wears the suffering of Winnie’s thirty-odd years of political power, so even when Winnie becomes more like a devious mobster than a devoted philanthropist, her humanity rings true.

It is unfortunate, then, that Winnie itself does not develop the character more thoroughly. The opening act in particular pushes Winnie aside. Although the film opens with scenes of Winnie’s childhood and chronicles her university years, Winnie almost becomes an afterthought once she meets the charismatic Nelson Mandela (played by Terrence Howard). As Winnie explores the origins and complexities of Mandela’s political career, Winnie serves as a mere reaction shot to Nelson’s actions. The film also glosses over much, and while it covers all the bases in the romance of Nelson and Winnie, as well as the trial and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, Winnie might have been stronger had these events been explored in greater depth.

The film nevertheless improves once Winnie takes hold of her husband’s cause, as it allows Hudson to take the reins and deliver the character with the weight she deserves. Howard equally provides as Nelson Mandela: while it is initially difficult to displace Morgan Freeman’s memorable incarnation of the former South African President in Invictus, Howard conveys Mandela’s plight with equal dignity and spirit. Howard also resembles Mandela far more than Freeman does, which aids Winnie because the film suffers from noticeable make-up jobs on Howard and Hudson during the aging process. By the film’s end, the actors resemble the Klumps rather than the Mandelas. It would be unfair to note any further glitches on the technical side of Winnie, as the film screened at the festival in an unfinished cut. One hopes that the make-up will look more seamless after the final rendering, for nothing should detract from the performances of Hudson and Howard, which elevate Winnie to a higher calibre.

Despite its flaws, Winnie was the better Canadian film of the day. My next film, Nuit #1, was a last minute addition to the agenda. Unable to exchange my final voucher for Melancholia, I opted for Nuit #1 because it fit the time slot and afforded a chance to see a film by a new Canadian director. That voucher might best have gone to waste.

Nuit #1 tells of two Montrealers who have a one-night stand. The film provides a full view of the encounter between Clara (Catherine De Léan) and Nikolai (Dimitri Storoge). Literally. Nuit #1 commences with nearly fifteen minutes of hard-core sex, as the two try each other out in various locations and positions. (The also have a pee break.) If the extended naughty bit sounds pretentious, it hardly seems so when spliced next to the ensuing hour-long conversation in which Clara and Nikolai trade speeches that speculate on what might have been had the night shown promise for romance. Their speeches are far more anatomical than amorous, though, for the two merely recite what they would like to have done to each other, where they would have done it, and in which orifice. It is like being subjected to the matching monologues from Gigli for a full sixty minutes.

In spite of the self-consciously edgy dialogue, De Léan manages to deliver Clara’s longings with some emotional resonance. The one blessing of the film might be that another filmmaker will be encouraged to provide the actress with some material worthy of her talents. Nuit #1, however, should join That Summer on a walk of shame.

Third up for the day proved one of the more disappointing films of the festival, but one still worth seeing nonetheless. Rachel Weisz gives a fiery performance as Hester Collyer in Terence Davies’ adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea. Hester is a volatile and self-destructive woman whose romantic insecurities leave her duelling “with the devil and the deep blue sea.” As Hester, Weisz immerses herself in a flurry of emotion and pent-up desperation. It’s an impressive piece of drama, yet the film itself is not: Weisz’s dynamic performance frequently drives the film in places where the narrative meanders. Moreover, an unbearably bombastic score drowns out the emotion – the screeching chords even mute Weisz’s showy work.

There are, however, some fine points to the production. Of note are the costumes by Ruth Myers, as well as the cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister, which adds a moody atmosphere through lighting both soft and low-key. Overall, though, Weisz is the chief reason to see the film, and her strong work in The Deep Blue Sea makes it quite the year for the actress when coupled with her excellent performance in this summer’s The Whistleblower.

After three great performances in three low to mid-range films, the final film of the day was the best offering in both regards. Albert Nobbs is one of the more hotly anticipated films to screen at TIFF, given the legend of it as the long-gestating passion project of Glenn Close. Close should consider the film worth the effort. Her turn as Albert Nobbs, a woman who passed as a male butler in 1850’s Ireland, ranks among her best film performances.

Close fits the role to perfection. Her delicate features grant Albert an ambiguous sexuality, although said doubt may reside in knowing the actor’s sex beforehand. The physical act is no mere gimmick, for Close plays Albert with a reserved fragility: Albert is always on guard, both in fear of being outed and in playing the role of the perfect butler. With a twinkle in her eye and a slight grin on her chin, Close’s Albert is a charming fellow. She gives a dexterously understated performance that reveals the film’s larger implications on class and gender through Albert’s subtle observations and repressed desire.

Rounding out the day’s list of notable female performances is Janet McTeer in a fearless endeavour as Page, Nobbs’s companion and conspirator. The scenes with Close and McTeer are delightful and hint at the greatness of which Albert Nobbs falls short. The film has some loose ends and some secondary plots that fail to match the excitement of Albert’s journey. Close nevertheless deserves credit as both co-writer and producer in addition to star: her performance carries the film, and Nobbs consists of enough worthy showpieces to forgive the lesser material. The efforts of the arts and crafts teams are also top-notch, especially the detailed costumes and sets.

In spite of the minor shortcomings of Albert Nobbs, Close should congratulate herself for giving an excellent performance in a very good film. Close could possibly find her way to the Oscars with Albert Nobbs. Even though the slate of festival films suggests a heated race is underway for Best Actress, Close’s uncanny turn could easily fool the voters and scoop the Best Actor prize instead.

Programmed in for the last day of TIFF: Violet & Daisy, Page Eight, and Countdown.