In terms of Oscar watching, the most anticipated World Premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival debuted Sunday night and it did not disappoint. Focus Features, as expected, has a major contender in The Theory Of Everything, its Stephen Hawking biopic that turns out to be a touching and unusual love story between the young Hawking and his wife Jane. The film is based on hermemoir, and Anthony McCarten’s adaptation and first-rate direction by Oscar winner James Marsh (Man On Wire) get it all right. Stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones will both be heading to the Oscars in the lead actor and actress categories, and if the buzz at the Patria afterparty is any indication, they could be going there with front-runner status (although the season is just getting rolling). To say the response here was rapturous would not be understating the enthusiasm I heard — not just from pundits but also Academy voters with whom I spoke. One told me he came in with high expectations for a quality movie and this one exceeded them.
New Focus Features chief Peter Schlessel was beaming, clearly excited about the reaction, a highly enthusiastic standing ovation when the cast and filmmakers were introduced at the end. He told me the company remains as filmmaker-friendly as ever, even as it broadens its scope in the kind of movies it will distribute. The movie from Working Title is the latest in a long line of top-tier films for that label run by Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan (who also were understandably happy about the reception their latest film just got here). Fellner told me he’s grateful for the relationship Working Title has with Universal (parent company of Focus), especially in an industry environment where quality grown-up movies like this one are becoming an endangered species. “I certainly hope we are not becoming dinosaurs in the business,” he laughed. Hardly. They are producing the next film from the Coen Brothers, with whom they have a long-standing relationship, and also a new film, The Danish Girl, from their Les Miserables director Tom Hooper that renunites him with Redmayne. Redmayne told me he starts shooting at the end of January and plays real life transgender pioneer Einar Wegener. Sounds like another challenging role for this rising movie star, who pulls off the difficult, physically limiting role of Hawking with remarkable skill and humanity. Redmayne soars in this role, and despite the fact that he had a previous relationship with Working Title on Les Miz, told me that he really fought to get this part. “Once I finally got it then I said to myself, ‘Oh no, now what do I do?” he laughed about the high-wire act of capturing Hawking, who at 72 is alive and able to pass judgement on Redmayne’s portrayal. Redmayne, clearly relieved, says he has done that and approved. Equally fine is Jones, delivering a fierce but understated performance of a remarkable woman who willed their marriage into being when others might have just walked away. All you can say is just, Wow, about these two performances.
Jones told me it was very helpful to meet Jane, who she describes as a live wire and life force. The film doesn’t stint at all in telling the complex tale of these two. She had an affair and remarried. He developed a relationship with a woman who helped him overcome his debilitating disease (ALS) to become an important world figure. It’s a complex and enormously moving — and this film will be in it for the long haul. It opens November 7th.
The Theory Of Everything was not the only World Premiere to take TIFF by storm Sunday. In a bit of a surprise, Warner Bros underdog The Good Lie pulled off a feat I have actually never seen at this fest. There have been lots of standing ovations here when the stars or filmmakers are introduced or spotlighted at the end of films, but for Good Lie’s premiere the packed Elgin theatre audience spontaneously stood up in unison, in the dark, as the first end credits rolled, handing the touching film a vociferous standing ovation that lasted several minutes. The theater manager said later it was the first time he had ever seen that happen. This film, from Black Label Media, Alcon and Imagine (Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are two of the producers), is a clear crowd pleaser.
The story of Sudanese refugees who come to America for a new life has been gestating for a decade until first-time screenwriter Margaret Nagle — who won an Emmy nomination for HBO’s Warm Springs and is currently producing the new Fox series Red Band Society — got it back from Paramount, where it was languishing. It may have taken a long time but the journey, like the one depicted in the movie, was obviously worth it as far as the TIFF crowd who saw this unveiled yesterday is concerned. Canada’s Philippe Falardeau directed and clearly had a passion for this script. “I didn’t find this movie, it found me,” he told the crowd. It was quite an emotional screening, particularly given that the key cast actually lived the kind of life they portray themselves, adding an air of authenticity you can’t buy. Alcon, which was behind the surprise audience hit The Blind Side, could have another one just like it in The Good Lie. I am told Warners believes in its commercial possibilities (distribution head Dan Fellman told me he breaks up every time he sees it) and isn’t projecting anything beyond that at this point. Sometimes these things just take on a life of their own.
Speaking of Warners, they had another World Premiere here last night with director Shawn Levy’s wonderfully entertaining dramedy This Is Where I Leave You. Levy, a major studio director known for very successful and commercial movies like Night At the Museum and Cheaper By The Dozen among many others, decided about five years ago to start taking his career in new directions. This movie, boasting one of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year, is a major step for him. Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda are among its stars making the scene here for the film, which opens September 19th and reps a rare kind of major studio movie that isn’t the norm these days.
Levy told me Fonda so wanted to be a part of this film that the two-time Oscar winning legend called Warners (the studio where she made her debut in Tall Story in 1960) and asked if she could do a test. Levy was shocked. “Jane Fonda doesn’t do tests and we wouldn’t ask. She’s an offer, but she insisted on testing so we did and she was wonderful,” he said. It’s great to see her grab a major film role like this again. She is terrific as a newly widowed mother who brings all her grown children back to their childhood home to sit shiva. And she’s got a couple of scenes here that audiences will definitely be talking about. They certainly are in Toronto — as this fest turns a corner and hits its stride.