It seemed appropriate that “The Young Victoria” closed out Toronto this year, considering that the festival turned out to be a coronation for women in film, in addition to being a celebration its host metropolis (a series of pre-screening clips from Toronto-based films honored the city’s 175th anniversary). Besides showcasing upcoming femme-centric fall releases as “Bright Star,” “An Education,” “Whip It!” and “Fish Tank,” the festival ended up bestowing audience awards upon the coming-of-age drama “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” and the doc “The Topp Twins,” which focuses on a pair of lesbian sisters and musicians who have been entertaining New Zealand for the past three decades. (A full list of winners can be found here.)
The best and the worst thing that can be said about “The Young Victoria” is that it left me wanting more. During a brisk 96 minutes, we witness the rise of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) from a shy, sheltered child who can’t walk up a flight of stairs without holding her mother’s hand to being a mother herself. Director Jean-Marc Vallée hits all the high points of the young monarch’s life and finds ample intrigue in the political and personal machinations that swirl around her to prevent her rise to the throne. What’s surprising is that Vallée and “Gosford Park” writer Julian Fellowes don’t take more advantage of Blunt, who demonstrates more vulnerability than she has in the past, but without much of the light charm that has been the foundation for her most memorable performances. She does conjure sparks with Rupert Friend, who plays her eventual husband Prince Albert, and a solid supporting cast that includes Paul Bettany and Mark Strong as Victoria’s rivals, and a bouffanted Jim Broadbent as a benevolent King William.
Within seconds of Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child,” you realize that the writer/director is in full command of both his noted intuition for women and his ability to tell simple but powerful stories that run deep with emotion. As we witness an elegant montage of a 14-year-old girl losing her virginity, getting pregnant and deciding to give the child up for adoption in a matter of minutes, Garcia uses no words, shows no judgment and lets the story tell itself. This is no minor accomplishment for the filmmaker, who’s previously constrained himself to features comprised of vignettes (“Nine Lives,” “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her”) and HBO shows before things went haywire on last year’s Anne Hathaway psychological thriller “Passengers.” His films always have the odd paradox of features some of the most glamorous actresses around while making them utterly ordinary, and in his earlier work, he’d need them for only a few scenes to make his point and move on gracefully.
“Mother and Child” is only awkward when things become too pat in the story of the grown-up version of that 14-year-old (Annette Bening), the daughter she’s never met (Naomi Watts) and a woman looking to adopt since she can’t conceive (Kerry Washington). Rather than having the loose ends that his vignettes could afford, Garcia weaves a story in much the same style as the film’s executive producer Alejandro González Iñárritu, with the three strands converging towards a powerful conclusion. Like Iñárritu’s work, this occasionally leads to happenstance that doesn’t feel entirely real, something Garcia strives for, but gets at a larger truth.
Having Bening, Watts and Washington all at the top of their game, as well as unusually nuanced performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits as the men in their lives, Garcia doesn’t have to force things — as much pain as his characters go through in navigating their daily lives, he’s able to find the nobility in their struggle. The best line in the film comes from Washington’s character Lucy, when she’s being interviewed by a pregnant teen (Shareeka Epps) to be a potential mom for her child. When asked why she isn’t giving the answers the teen would more likely want to hear, Lucy responds that “the truth is easier to remember.” For the same uncomfortable reasons, perhaps that’s why “Mother and Child” is still resonating days after I saw it.
Samantha Morton has said in interviews that her directorial debut, “The Unloved,” will probably be her only film behind the camera. If that’s true, it would be a shame, if also understandable, given that Morton had been storyboarding the loosely autobiographical film since she was 16 and living in a homeless shelter. With a visual style influenced by directors like Anton Corbijn and Lynne Ramsey, both of whom she’s worked with, Morton has poured everything into “The Unloved,” a drama that follows the plight of an 11-year-old girl named Lucy (Molly Windsor). Lucy passes through a home for child services, frightened by her surroundings and unable to pursue her absent mother (Susan Lynch) after a beating at the hands of her father (Robert Carlyle). After already airing on Channel 4 in the U.K. as a way to bring attention to flaws in the nation’s child care system, “The Unloved” could be the rare made-for-TV movie that’s also a work of art — inherently cinematic, Morton’s clear-eyed character study is poetic with its spare imagery, whether capturing Lucy as she sits alone in a crowded school cafeteria or walking amongst the tombstones on her eventual journey towards finding her mother. The film has been called “Ken Loach on downers” in its native England, but it’s surprisingly beautiful, and told with the uncompromising vision that audiences have come to expect from Morton in her acting work.