Page last updated at 09:11 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 10:11 UK

British film to open Toronto festival

By Tom Brook
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Paul Bettany as Darwin
Creation stars Paul Bettany as the scientist Charles Darwin

For the first time in its 34-year history, a British film will kick off the 10-day Toronto International Film Festival which gets under way on Thursday.

The film, Creation, stars the Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly and her husband, British actor Paul Bettany.

It tells the story of how Charles Darwin wrote his seminal work The Origin of Species - and the tensions that brought to his relationship with his devout Christian wife. It also shows how Darwin struggled to accept his daughter's death.

Festival co-director Cameron Bailey says Creation was chosen to open the festival partly because he was impressed by its scope. He calls it "a big, sweeping film about big ideas - in terms of that eternal conflict between faith and reason".

'Healthy debate'

Jeff Hill
Toronto is where pretty much most of the press and industry come out for the first time in the fall to see Oscar hopefuls
Publicist Jeff Hill

The film's British director, Jon Amiel, is elated that his film has won such a prestigious festival slot. He says: "It's huge for me - to open it is a huge honour."

Amiel thinks that having husband and wife team Bettany and Connelly in the lead roles helped give the film authenticity.

"They bring an effortless sense of a life shared to the screen," he says.

Creation may bring some protests because Darwin's theories are strongly contested by creationists who believe God's hand, through intelligent design, played a key role in evolution.

Amiel says he would welcome any discussion that the film might stimulate.

"I'd be very happy for it to provoke a healthy debate," he says, adding "it's appalling that Darwin's ideas should be any more controversial than Galileo's or Newton's, but they are."

Creation is just one some 25 British films that will be screened in Toronto.

Urban western

Sir Michael Caine
Michael Caine stars with Emily Mortimer in revenge story Harry Brown

Others include Harry Brown, billed as a modern urban Western starring Sir Michael Caine - and the drama The Boys are Back, with Clive Owen in the leading role.

Sir Ridley Scott's daughter, Jordan, will also be at the festival making her debut as a director with a drama called Cracks - set at a girls' boarding school.

The UK's HanWay films has six British pictures in Toronto. Tim Haslam, who's responsible for international sales at HanWay, boasts that the British presence at Toronto shows "we have a platform for our films - they are significant in every way and they are wanted".

One British actress who will be under close scrutiny is 24-year-old Bleak House star Carey Mulligan, who has the leading role in a coming-of-age story called An Education, set in London in the 1960s.

Oscar buzz

There is plenty of buzz around her performance, amplified by her publicists who are trying to get Oscar voters to take note.

Indeed Toronto, which will be screening more than 270 full-length features, promises to be a glittery affair.

Oprah Winfrey will be in town helping to promote the strangely-titled film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" - the story of a teenage girl in Harlem, who is made pregnant by her father twice.

Winfrey is one of the film's executive producers and many think Precious, which was also screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival in May, is a strong awards contender.

Ricky Gervais stars with Jennifer Garner in The Invention of Lying
Ricky Gervais stars with Jennifer Garner in The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais will be at the festival for the world premiere of his comedy The Invention of Lying - a fantasy set in a world where nobody lies.

Gervais, who stars in the movie, is also making his first foray into feature film-making as a co-director.

George Clooney is starring in two films being screened at the festival: the comedies Up in The Air and The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Both of Clooney's pictures have just been unveiled at the Venice Film Festival. In addition, Toronto will host the North American premiere of Michael Moore's documentary Capitalism: A Love Story - also shown in Venice.

Controversy

Some film fans are concerned that this year's festival will become mired in political controversy. A coalition of artists and film-makers has signed an open letter protesting against a new festival City to City programme which puts the cinematic spotlight on Tel Aviv.

The letter, also signed by Jane Fonda and Danny Glover, charges that the festival "had become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine".

But Festival director Piers Handling says he has no regrets about instituting the now-controversial cinema programme celebrating Tel Aviv.

"I think the reaction has been split completely," he says "Some people obviously are very upset with the decision we've made, and other people are completely supportive of it."

Away from politics, Oscar fans are hoping that in keeping with tradition Toronto will give some definition to next year's Oscars race.

Veteran publicist Jeff Hill - who is handling several Toronto films that could become Oscar contenders - thinks the festival has a key strategic role.

"Toronto is where pretty much most of the press and industry come out for the first time in the fall to see Oscar hopefuls. As a publicist, it's a good platform," he says.

At the festival everyone will be looking for that underdog film that could emerge as a surprise Academy Awards contender, mindful that it was at Toronto last year that the Oscar-anointed Slumdog Millionaire first emerged as a big favourite.



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