Tamara Drewe: Having previously investigated the gamemanship of seduction in screen versions of Choderlos de Laclos, Jim Thompson, and Colette, Stephen Frears turns his attention to Thomas Hardy with this insistently frothy adaptation of Posy Simmonds’s graphic-novel modernization of Far from the Madding Crowd. The setting is an airbrushed version of the British countryside, where wordsmiths gather at a writers’ resort lorded over by a smug, philandering hack novelist (Roger Allam) and his biscuit-baking doormat of a wife (Tamsin Greig). Enter the eponymous lass (Gemma Arterton), an ugly duckling-turned-hot-pants swan (complete with her own saucy webzine column and a surgeon-sculptured nose) newly back from a big-city sojourn, ready to take over her family cottage and inflame every man in sight. The appealing ensemble (including Bill Camp as a shy American intellectual and Dominic Cooper as a grungily rambunctious drummer) works hard, but Frears’s tone of one-note ribaldry flattens the characters’ foibles and Hardy’s themes with equal broadness. More than one report has heralded the film’s crowd-pleasing machinations as a welcome break from the fest’s gloomier fare, though, to these eyes, calculated cuteness is scarcely preferable to heartfelt tragedy.
13 Assassins: A prolific, perverse cine-explorer who can one moment compose a gorgeous image and deface it with acid the next, Takashi Miike embraces his inner classicist with this sturdy yet surprisingly conventional samurai saga. Nominally a remake of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 picture and thematically a tribute to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal katana-fests, the film paints a dark-toned 19th-century Japan of nihilistic noblemen and discarded warriors (“Swords these days are only good for cutting radish,” says one character). The chance to revive the “age of war” comes when a Shogun official (Mikijiro Hira) gets a samurai (Kōji Yakusho) to pit his 12 disciples against a degenerate lord’s (Goro Inagaki) 200 bodyguards. The sprawling battle that follows (taking up over one third of the running time) features spiky booby traps, flaming bovine stampedes, and such massacre-punctuating lines as “Only 130 more men to go!” Miike’s bloody fingerprints are felt in the bloodcurdling scream of one of the villain’s limbless, tongueless victims, but the true authorial challenge lies in figuring out the Japanese iconoclast’s attitude toward samurai honor. Foregrounding the journey’s waste more than its glory, he nevertheless can’t help but side with the warriors’ antique codes with a reverence one suspects the slash-and-burn Miike of old might have scoffed at.
Norwegian Wood: Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s languid-erotic novel provides another trip to Japan’s past, namely the late ’60s when students took to street protests and the titular Beatles ballad seemed to throb for every doomed lover. The central triangle concerns a pair of bashful sweethearts (Rinko Kikuchi, Kengo Kora) and a friend (Kenichi Matsuyama) who all reject the political upheavals around them in favor of a private, morbid sort of rebellion that would have received the approval of the Romantic poets from last year’s Bright Star. Fascinated by the pale light silhouetting largely monosyllabic characters in embrace while Jonny Greenwood’s guitar gently weeps, the picture finds the lush eye and sensual intuitiveness of Tran (Vertical Ray of the Sun) seamlessly in synch with the wry moodiness of the author of Tony Takitani. The fusion of these two miniaturists may be at 133 minutes too much of an emo orgy for some, though there’s no escaping the swoony stateliness of the film’s melancholy, where loss and phantoms move like clouds over endless verdant fields.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9—19.