Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Toast (2010)


Here is how I imagine this hypothetical sequence of events.  Screenwriter Lee Hall, best known for the Billy Elliot script, sat down and read Nigel Slater’s autobiography.  Hall loved it so much that he sat down and turned it into a screenplay named Toast.  This is not unusual since the main characters in Billy Elliot and Toast are very similar.  BBC One bought it instead of a film studio which should be clue number one that Toast was not going to be a potential Billy Elliot sequel.  They hired a director, S.J. Clarkson, mostly known for directing TV episodes on both side of the pond such as EastEnders and Dexter.  Most surprising and most perplexing, the BBC and the Toast script were able to attract acting talent, most notably Helena Bonham Carter.
What did Carter see in this script?  She took time out of her life the very same year both Alice in Wonderland and The King’s Speech hit theaters to slap on ill-fitting kitchen attire and help bring the life and times of Nigel Slater to the world.  Nigel Slater is a British food writer most notably for the Observer and previously for Marie Clair.  He was born in the Midlands to repressed, but somewhat wealthy, parents who did not dedicate much time and effort into the domestic side of life. 
Nigel’s mother played by Victoria Hamilton seems to have no experience in the kitchen whatsoever as she puts actual cans of food into boiling water and at the same time sucks on an inhaler to indicate to Nigel and the audience that something is not quite right.  Nigel’s father, Ken Stott, disappears to some sort of job during the day and returns home with few kind words for his son and prances on eggshells around his wife.  When he tells Nigel to do something, the reason behind it is usually, “Do it for your mother” although Nigel cannot quite make sense of why eating a miserable ham would benefit his mother very much.  Most conversations between Nigel and his father end in the exclamation, “You stupid, ignorant boy.”
Not surprisingly at all given the overt setup, Nigel’s mom dies early in the film and then men are left to their own selves.  This does not last very long before Helena Bonham Carter shows up as Mrs. Potter, the new house cleaner.  Nigel sees straight away that the lady from local council housing has set her eyes on their nice house and well to do Mr. Slater.  She goes above and beyond mere cleaning; she starts to darn socks and even cook.  The allure and mysteries of cooking are a subplot so far as Nigel has never seen anyone make a proper meal before but is wise enough to recognize and agree with the axiom, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Mrs. Potter knows this proverb all too well.  Pies, turkeys, and potatoes all start to regularly appear on their dinner table, items which had never been there before.  Nigel begins home economics training, at the expense of his popularity, to match wits with Mrs. Potter in the kitchen.  His motivation for doing so is not clear.  Is it jealousy for his father’s affection?  Does he despise Mrs. Potter so much that the one way he thinks he can get her fired is to be a better cook than she is? 
The Mrs. Potter character is one of the main reasons Toast is a truly horrible film.  In Nigel’s eyes, she is the epitome of evil; however, to every other rational human being and the audience, she is a normal woman who truly seems to take a shine to his father and even Nigel himself, although he is a true brat to her every chance he gets.  She may latch on to the possibility of climbing the social ladder a bit too readily, but she is not mean.  She shoulders all of the domestic responsibilities of the home and never once hits little Nigel and never even gets in a shouting match with him.
Nigel’s hostility wears on the audience very quickly and after a bit, just seems tired and out of place.  Nigel is played by newcomer Oscar Kennedy as an eight year old and by Freddie Highmore (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) as a teenager.  His animosity never recedes and by the end, I was absolutely fed up with watching him.  The interactions between Nigel and his father and between Nigel and Mrs. Potter do not work.  I am incredulous that anyone, especially an actress of Helena Bonham Carter’s caliber, would read this script and agree it would be a good idea to turn it into a film.
Stay away from Toast at all costs.  Even though it is based on an autobiography, it is ridiculous, monotonous, and worst of all, despising all of the characters on the screen is no way to enjoy a film.  In fact, Toast is a film to endure rather than to enjoy.

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