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By Saibal Chatterjee September 08, 2017
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Toronto International Film Festival

The 42nd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which runs from September 7 to 17, promises it all: world and North American premieres of award season hopefuls, a clutch of Oscar-worthy star turns, and compelling and timely stories from around the world. Among the top draws at the festival will be films about women seeking liberation, history playing out in inexorable ways and athletes facing the challenges in the sporting arena and outside it.

English actor Gary Oldman will demonstrate his proven skills in the role of Winston Churchill in the early years of World War II in Joe Wright’s period film Darkest Hour. Jessica Chastain, in Susanna White’s sweeping historical drama Woman Walks Ahead, plays 19th century Brooklyn artiste Catherine Weldon who travelled to Dakota Territory and became the confidante of legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull. Both Oldman and Chastain are expected to be in with a chance of victory when the Oscars are handed out on March 4.

Another Chastain film — playwright-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game world premieres in TIFF. Co-starring Idris Elba, the film tells the true story of Molly Brown, proprietor of Hollywood’s most exclusive poker game for a decade before being shut down by the FBI. 

Recent American history is revisited in John Curran’s Chappaquidick, which probes the story behind the mysterious 1969 incident in which Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) accidentally drove off a bridge, killing campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

The 19th century race for marketable electricity in the US between Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse is brought to the screen in American director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War. The film has Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of inventor Edison and Michael Shannon as entrepreneur Westinghouse.   

TIFF 2017 kicked off on Sept.7 with the Gala Presentation of Borg/McEnroe, a Janus Metz-directed film that dramatises the epic rivalry between tennis greats Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which came to a head at the 1980 Wimbledon Championships. The film stars Shia LaBeouf as the temperamental McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as the calm and composed Borg.

The festival opener will set the tone for several other sports-themed films, including Battle of the Sexes, directed by the wife and husband team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. The film recreates the circumstances leading to the legendary 1973 match between tennis champ Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).

The story of two runners whose lives were altered by the Boston Marathon bombings of April 5, 2013, David Gordon Green’s Stronger focuses on the struggles of Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, to adjust to life after losing his legs. The film, based on Bauman’s memoir, celebrates the indomitability of the human spirit, the power of love seen in the male protagonist’s relationship with his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), also a marathoner who was a mile from the finish line when the bombs went off.

In Australian-born Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, Margot Robbie plays a disgraced Olympic figure skater, who, in what ranks among the biggest scandals in US sports history, was accused of plotting a brutal attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. Robbie’s performance is tipped to be among the Oscar nominations next year.

Other big Hollywood names whose films could whip up pre-Oscar buzz or George Clooney’s Suburbicon, starring Matt Damon; Frances McDormand, who plays a grieving mother of a murdered girl in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and Elle Fanning as the titular character in Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour’s Mary Shelley.  

TIFF’s gender parity initiative— the festival launched a Share Her Journey movement this year to champion female storytellers — extends all across its programme this year. Six of the 12 titles vying for the Platform awards are directed by women. Among these are Swedish director Lisa Langseth’s first English-language film, Euphoria, starring Alicia Vikander and Eva Green; British filmmaker Clio Barnard’s Dark River; Austrian Barbara Albert’s Mademoiselle Paradis; and Norwegian director Iram Haq’s What Will People Say.  

Three Hollywood actresses — Angelina Jolie, Greta Gerwig and Brie Larson — are in Toronto with new directorial ventures. Jolie’s latest film as a director, First They Killed My Father, plays in the Special Presentations section. Co-written and co-produced by the Lara Croft star, the film is an adaptation of the memoir by Loung Ung, which recounts the horrors that the author encountered — and survived — during the atrocities unleashed by the Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia.

Gerwig’s first solo directorial effort, Lady Bird, the opening film of the Special Presentations segment, features Saoirse Ronan as a young woman grappling with the pressures and challenges of a Catholic school in suburban Sacramento and dreaming of escaping to a more exciting life. 

Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson stars in her directorial debut, Unicorn Store, about a diehard dreamer who refuses to abandon her childhood fantasies. The film offers “a quirky perspective on existential crisis, a topic particularly dominated by male directors.”

Although a wide array of other films in the TIFF lineup are directed by women, the focus is by no means only on talent behind the camera. Across the various sections of the festival are promising cinematic stories about ordinary and not-so-ordinary women on personal quests.

Bille August’s 55 Steps, starring Hillary Swank and Helena Bonham Carter, is a fact-based drama about a mentally ill woman fighting the intractable psychiatric establishment with the aid of a lawyer who becomes her close confidante and champion. 

In Melanie Laurent’s French film Plonger, a restless photographer leaves her family and takes up deep-sea diving. TIFF also hosts a World Premiere Gala screening of Bjorn Runge’s The Wife, starring Glenn Close as a woman who decides to leave her husband on the eve of his Nobel Prize for Literature in order to pursue her own long-jettisoned ambitions as a writer.

In Dominic Savage’s British film, The Escape, which has its World Premiere in Special Presentations, Gemma Arterton plays a homemaker and mother who abandons her family “to find herself.” At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Italian director Andrea Pallaoro’s Hannah, in which Charlotte Rampling is cast as a character who is left to fend her herself after her husband’s imprisonment.

British-Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s I am Not a Witch, a film that premiered in Directors Fortnight in Cannes in May and earned unstinted applause, is a nuanced tale about superstition in an African community where a young girl is banished from her village to live in a camp of exiled witches.

From Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Samui Song, in which a soap opera actress adopts desperate means to rid herself of her cult-member husband, to debutante Colombian director Laura Mora’s Killing Jesus, a true story of a girl who has witnessed her father’s killing and draws the young killer into a romantic relationship, the programme is replete with tales of badass women who think nothing of throwing caution to the wind.

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