TIFF 2015: Your Guide to the Special Presentations Programme
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TIFF 2015: Your Guide to the Special Presentations Programme

A look at some of the pedigreed offerings in the middle-aged fest's sprawling Special Presentations programme, from a New England witch's hex on a Puritan family to a visceral Holocaust drama.

Still from Room.

Typically the bastion for Cannes holdovers from the summer and fresh awards hopefuls eager to hit the fall festival trajectory, this year’s Special Presentations lineup is no less starry or pedigreed than usual. We profile some of the programme’s most auspicious North American and Canadian debuts.

Fresh from its standing ovations and tear-filled auditoriums at Telluride, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room makes a stop in Toronto before going on to likely Oscar glory. The film, adapted from Emma Donoghue’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel by the author herself, tells the story of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a five-year old boy raised entirely in the confines of the titular space, a cramped shed where his intrepid Ma (Brie Larson) has been held captive for the past seven years by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Donoghue’s novel is an unlikely candidate for adaptation, both for its difficult material and its unusual perspective, which stays focused entirely on Jack’s strange perceptions of the space around him — picture the childhood passages from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man stretched to book length. Abrahamson and Donoghue don’t always pull off the impossible: Jack’s naive, poetic monologues don’t jive all that well with the film’s bare-bones style, grasping for an alternately intellectual and redemptive tone that isn’t always supported by the film itself. But Larson and Tremblay make fantastic screen partners, the former patiently guiding the other to a fine performance, and there’s real power both to the claustrophobic first act and the more uncertain aftermath — spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer — once the duo’s escape into a strange, unforgivably large world that might as well be another planet.

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Andrew Haigh turns in his own two-hander about a symbiotic relationship tested by time and circumstance in 45 Years. The Looking co-creator and Weekend director has built a sterling young career out of portraits of transient love among gay men, which he parlays nicely into this intricately woven story of longtime married couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), whose marriage begins to show its cracks when the body of Geoff’s old girlfriend, killed in an accident in the Swiss Alps before Kate was in the picture, resurfaces. Haigh is a smart and subtle filmmaker, expertly wielding what might have been a disastrous metaphor about a glacier that yields new fruit after melting as a commentary on the couple’s own thawing past. At times, though, his design feels a bit programmatic: the marital surprises, when they are revealed, feel a little too obvious and preordained. Even so, this is a moving, beautifully acted film that delivers its emotional punches with just the right force.

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The same can’t quite be said of Brooklyn, John Crowley’s adaptation of the Colm Tóibín novel about the duelling loves and duties of Ellis (Saiorse Ronan), a young Irish woman who tires of her provincial surroundings and meagre prospects and migrates to New York — which looks a lot like Montreal, down to the Jessica Paré cameo — and falls for an Italian (Emory Cohen) who promises her a new life and a plot of land. All is well until family tragedy strikes, bringing Ellis home to a more modernized Ireland that holds another prospective lover (Domhnall Gleeson) and a better job. Ronan has come into her own as an actress since her early performances as a child, commanding some strenuous closeups and nicely shading her character’s ambivalent feelings about being in two points across the Atlantic at once: it’s a testament to her sensitivity as a performer that we never really know what she’s thinking until fairly late in the game. But Nick Hornby’s script is in the wrong key for this emotionally complex material, hammering out tired epithets and lazily pronouncing its themes at every opportunity. That Ronan comes out strong is some kind of miracle.

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Another Sundance hit, Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch, is a better bet. An austere horror film about a quaint New England Puritan family besieged by a supernatural force that insists on punishing them either for their stringent faith or lack thereof, The Witch is as accomplished a first film as we’ve seen in some time. It’s also progressive in ways we won’t spoil, except to say that it’s rare to find a horror film so squarely on the side of the bad guy. The title card boasting of the film’s origins in 17th century historical documents is a bit of a mulligan — what seventeenth century patriarch or teen girl spoke the way literate magistrates said they did? —but this is minimalist horror done right and done scary.

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Of course, another reason to check out the festival’s Special Presentations slate is to catch up with some of the luminaries of the Cannes Film Festival without having to shill out twenty euros for a baguette and an espresso. The fest is screening most of the major titles, including Palme D’Or winner Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s topical melodrama-turned-action-thriller about a Sri Lankan refugee whose past as a Tamil Tiger catches up with him in his new inhospitable surroundings in France. For our money, Dheepan is a mixed bag, working decently well enough as a character drama as well as a Rambo-esque thriller in the last act (just wait), but not really justifying the shift. If we had to invest in an award winner from the fest, we’d go with Palme runner up and Grand Prix winner Son of Saul, a blistering first-person account of a Jewish-Hungarian man’s desperate effort to find a rabbi to help him bury a child in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in the final days of the war. Expertly directed by first-timer and former Béla Tarr assistant László Nemes, and shot in gorgeous, gritty 35mm, the film is a gruelling sit that doesn’t necessarily say anything new about the Holocaust but does pack a powerful punch.

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Alternately, you could take in Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s equally impressive if rather quieter debut, which played in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. A smart, cross-culturally savvy riff on The Virgin Suicides, the film follows five teenage sisters as they come into sexual maturity — and patriarchal restraint — in a conservative Turkish village. Though it didn’t get the same amount of press at Cannes, Ergüven’s film is every bit as angry and urgent as Nemes’s, presciently examining the way women’s self-development is objectified and monitored where men are allowed to flourish unimpeded.

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