Toast, director S. J. Clarkson’s sepia-toned adaptation of food writer Nigel Slater’s memoir about growing up in the culinary-poor English midlands of the 1960s is an agreeable enough affair. Agreeable, that is, in everything but its treatment of Helena Bonham Carter’s monstrous embodiment of lower-class pettiness, Joan Potter. After the death of young Nigel’s (Oscar Kennedy) beloved mum, his stern, uncomprehending father takes on the saucy, but “common” Joan as his maid and eventually wife. Perpetually chain-smoking, given to wearing tacky crimplene dresses, and irrationally vindictive, Joan quickly becomes her stepson’s chief antagonist, but unlike Nigel’s kindly late mother, whose cooking skills were unspeakable, Joan knows her way around the kitchen.
So does aspiring foodie Nigel, especially once he hits high school and, in the face of homophobic derision, signs up for home ec. The now-16-year-old boy (played at this point by Freddie Highmore) vies with Joan for culinary supremacy in the Slater household, which, of course, is also a struggle for the heart of Nigel’s father. Joan refuses to give an inch, desperately clinging to the one area of power in an otherwise impotent life, but the film doesn’t present Joan’s obstinacy as such. Viewed through condescending class terms, the woman from the council estates is routinely derided by both Nigel and the film for lacking the rudiments of petty bourgeois “sophistication,” an especially ironic twist given the lower-middle-class status of the Slater family. In the end, Joan is cruelly dismissed at the moment when she registers as most pathetic, leaving an air of bitterness that somewhat dampens the enthusiasm we take in Nigel’s eventual triumph and makes Nigel seem like a bit of a prick.
Joan aside, the film goes down easy enough. Whether providing a loving portrait of a sickly mother, subtly handling Nigel’s burgeoning homosexuality, or detailing endless scenes of food preparation both horrendous and awe-inspiring, the film transforms a not particularly pleasant or memorable childhood into a warmly rendered trip down nostalgia lane. It’s nostalgia of a distinctly bittersweet variety, however, one that counterbalances confusion and misery with fondly remembered details. The film’s denuded brownish color scheme adds an air of intangible wonder to, for example, a hyper-real trip to a local grocer in which the dated labels of cans call out to the aspiring foodie Nigel, but the same hues render a miserable family vacation to a dreary beach resort even more miserable looking, by replacing the expected sunny skies with a dull gloom. Attempts at gross-out/sexual humor fall flat and the film occasionally feels too cute by half; as far as memory pieces go, Toast is agreeable enough without being in any way challenging. Or it would be agreeable enough without Bonham Carter’s cruel caricature casting a pall over not only Nigel’s life, but the film itself.