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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 18:06 GMT

Sam steals the show in Toronto

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening star in Mendes' debut film

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

American Beauty, acclaimed British theatre director Sam Mendes' feature film debut, has stolen the limelight at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Tom Brook: "American Beauty has taken Toronto by storm"
London-based Mendes, who staged The Blue Room and a revival of Cabaret, created a festival sensation with the film's world premiere in Toronto.

Festival director Piers Handling declared American Beauty refreshingly original. He said :"It is incredibly well written, it is beautifully acted, but it also focuses on something that's wrong with the American Dream."

[ image: Unhappy families: America's suburbs under scrutiny]
Unhappy families: America's suburbs under scrutiny
The film is a dark comedy set in American suburbia starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Spacey plays a disillusioned magazine writer alienated from his materialistic wife and sullen teenage daughter.

He has delivered an Oscar-worthy performance, one of the best of his career, and views the role as a definite move into new territory.

"I've certainly never been given the opportunity to do so much comedy in a film," says Spacey, who is pleased to be moving away from "playing dark and mysterious and manipulative characters that seem to be 10 steps ahead of everyone else".

The man who has really been singled out for praise, and deservedly so, is British director Sam Mendes, for bringing to the screen a sophisticated comedy and stinging social critique of American suburbia.

[ image: Star of the show: Debut director Sam Mendes]
Star of the show: Debut director Sam Mendes
He says that while he was shooting the film in Los Angeles he thought: "What am I doing? I'm an Englishman directing a movie about life in the American suburbs!"

But Mendes is quick to point out that he should not take all the praise, because American Beauty was "written by an American, it had a brilliant cast of American actors, produced by Americans, so I was part of a team".

Other festival highlights included a tour-de-force performance from Ralph Fiennes in a world premiere of Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's new epic Sunshine.

It's an ambitious film that charts the history of a Jewish Hungarian family from the 1860s to the 1960s.

[ image: Ralph Fiennes: Star of Istvan Szabo's Sunshine]
Ralph Fiennes: Star of Istvan Szabo's Sunshine
Fiennes plays three different men from the family - a grandfather, son, and grandson.

He admits the prospect of playing three characters was a little daunting but says Szabo was "so meticulous and so specific about what each character was about, I never felt at sea".

The Fiennes family was really out in force in Toronto with Ralph's sister Martha making her directorial debut with the closing night feature, the romantic tale Onegin.

This British production, which takes its name from a well known work from Russia's national poet Aleksandr Pushkin, not only stars Ralph, but another brother Magnus Fiennes, who wrote the music for the film.

Not to be outdone Joseph Fiennes was also represented in Toronto starring opposite Gretchen Mol in an old fashioned melodrama called Forever Mine from director and screenwriter Paul Shrader.

[ image: Bob Hoskins' Felicia's Journey opened the festival]
Bob Hoskins' Felicia's Journey opened the festival
Altogether more than 300 films were screened in Toronto, before an audience of a quarter of a million.

It has become one of the biggest festivals of its kind. Some in the industry say it now ranks second only to Cannes in terms of overall importance.

Director Paul Schrader says he decided Toronto was significant when Bernardo Bertolucci decided to bring a film to Toronto to sell it there rather than taking it to Cannes, Berlin or Venice. Schrader recalls thinking "well if Bernardo is going to Toronto, that's the place to go".

Toronto has definitely become the place for Hollywood studios to launch their prestige autumn films.

This year a wide range of new offerings was premiered, everything from Wayne Wang's new mother-daughter drama Anywhere But Here, starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, to Ang Lee's American Civil War epic Ride With The Devil.

But by the end of the week American Beauty was still basking in accolades.

It stole the show in Toronto, and has catapulted Sam Mendes, one of Britain's hottest theatre directors, into the Hollywood big time.

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