By Caryn James | James on Screens June 10, 2011 at 1:00AM
We’ve seen Helena Bonham-Carter change in a flash from wild, witchy Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films to the Queen Mum in The King’s Speech, to the real-life character who showed up at the Golden Globes with playfully mismatched shoes (it was a fashion statement). She is just as engaging in a very different guise: as a bleached blonde, slightly dumpy, none-too-kind 1960’s stepmother who happens to be a divine cook in Toast, the delightful little coming-of-age film that launches From Britain with Love, a series of six new British films.
They will be shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (part of the opening celebration of the spiffy new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center) at the IFC Center in New York, and in theaters around the country. The series is a fantastic way of letting these smaller films - centered on personal relationships even when they address larger issues – find their audiences.
You can see why Toast needs a carefully handled release: this delicate yet witty story is based on the life of Nigel Slater, a TV-star cook in Britain and a no-name to most of America. In its early scenes, Nigel is a young boy (Oscar Kennedy) whose beloved mother (Victoria Hamilton) is such a horrible cook she puts tins of food in boiling water and is flummoxed by the idea of spaghetti. But she can make great toast. She is also dying of asthma, and the scenes of mother and son coming to terms with that become, strangely enough, quite lovely.
But the film really takes off when Nigel’s widowed Dad hires Mrs. Potter (Bonham Carter) to clean. She smokes while she cooks, she is crass, she pushes her way into the family using food as her battering ram. Nigel hates her but he has to admire her lemon meringue pie. And at 15 (now played wonderfully by Freddie Highmore) he learns to cook well enough to compete with her. I don’t want to oversell this engaging film, which was made for and first shown on the BBC. Its small scale is part of its charm.
Another highlight of the series is In Our Name, with Joanne Froggatt as Suzy, a soldier newly arrived home from Iraq. (We tend to forget that the British are fighting there too, much less think about British women in combat.) As Suzy grapples with guilt about her responsibility for death during war, and tries to rebuild her relationship with her husband and their young daughter, Froggatt and writer-director Brian Welsh create an emotionally potent individual whose story has much wider resonance.
In Our Name reminds us that small films can have big impacts and are worth seeking out. From Britain With Love makes that search a lot easier.
The series is a collaboration of the Film Society , the UK Film Council and Emerging Pictures, the digital network which will transmit the films and Lincoln Center’s live post-screening Q & A’s to other theaters. Director S.J. Clarkson will be there for Toast, and Welsh for In Our Name. (Here is a lucid argument by Emerging Pictures’ Ira Deutchman, recently posted on IndieWIRE, about the series and how the digital future can save arthouse films.)
You can find information on all the films in the series on the From Britain with Love site. Here is the enticing trailer for Toast, with snippets of Bonham Carter’s best moments.