Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Australian films get rousing reception in Toronto

Christina Ricci (right) stars in <i>Around the Block</i>, set in Redfern.

Christina Ricci (right) stars in Around the Block, set in Redfern.

Standing ovations, tears and cheers of joy – and those all-important sales – have greeted Australian filmmakers and stars at the most vital film festival for the Australian industry.

Toronto – the gateway to the lucrative US market, and widely viewed as the most reliable barometer of upcoming Oscar nominees – showcases Australian talent more than any other festival, with this year proving no exception.

Australian talent has been a consistent talking point at a time when films are increasingly hard to finance, and even harder to get up on screen. 

Last night, Joel Edgerton's self-penned new feature Felony, directed by Matthew Saville, premiered to a rousing reception. The Hollywood star's latest foray into writing and producing (his past off-screen credits include as writer and executive producer on the feature The Square) tells of a policeman (Edgerton) faced with a stark moral dilemma. First-look reviews have been glowing. That and healthy presales in the US and Europe will ensure the taught cop drama, co-starring Tom Wilkinson, Jai Courtney and Melissa George, enjoys a wide release in the new year.

Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in <i>The Railway Man</i>.

Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in The Railway Man.

Screen Australia's Kathleen Drumm has been on ground for the duration of this year's festival. She says Australian talent has proved "a consistent talking point" at a time when films are increasingly hard to finance, and even harder to get up on screen.

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"It's an incredibly competitive marketplace," she says. "Of the 300 films selected, it's estimated that only around 20 will achieve a theatrical release in North America. [John Curran's] Tracks secured a US deal with The Weinstein Company, and has continued to spark strong interest, which means the film will be widely seen around the world. [Jonathan Teplitzky's] The Railway Man is currently fielding a range of offers from the US, with the rest of the world sold out."

Six Australian features have screened at Toronto – including four world premieres – and Jane Schoettle, the festival's programmer, says they collectively resonate for one very good reason.

Nicole Kidman on the red carpet at the Toronto gala for <i>The Railway Man</i>.

Nicole Kidman on the red carpet at the Toronto gala for The Railway Man. Photo: AP

"The selection this year showcases the breadth and diversity of Australian film," Schoettle says. "From a small, independent film like Aaron Wilson's Canopy to large movies like The Railway Man, Felony and Tracks, they're all so profoundly different, in terms of subject matter and filmmaking style. It really is quite remarkable."

Two indigenous-themed films have also screened to great acclaim: Sarah Spillane's dramatic debut, Around the Block, set in Sydney's Redfern, and Ivan Sen's Mystery Road, set in the harsh outback, which opens across Australia next month. Both have resonated strongly with audiences in Toronto, following a series of events focusing on Canada's own indigenous issues.

Schoettle, who views up to 50 Australian features prior to the festival's final selection (from a total of 5000 submissions worldwide), is quick to emphasise that Toronto, whilst being very competitive, remains readily accessible for both established and up-and-coming filmmakers.

"Canopy is the perfect example," she says. "The filmmakers chose different forms of funding, rather than going down the traditional agency routes. It's a wonderful independent film, really different: a beautiful return to pure cinema."

Aaron Wilson's micro-budget feature debut, an independent Australian-Singaporean co-production, successfully raised more than $23,000 via the Pozible crowdfunding site prior to going into production last year. A largely silent thriller set during World War II, it follows an Australian fighter pilot as he navigates his way on foot during the Japanese taking of Singapore. Critics have been unanimous in their praise, with industry bible Screen International highlighting its "authentic suspense" and "powerful conclusion".

The Railway Man, rapturously received by audiences (if not by critics), similarly deals with the aftermath of the Asia-Pacific War, and the toll it took on the men who returned home. The film, which stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, is due for release in Australia on Boxing Day.

Australia's Chris Hemsworth and Hugh Jackman are among the other A-Listers who've been turning heads at this year's festival, while veteran director Fred Schepisi premiered his latest, US-funded feature, the comedy romance Words and Pictures, with stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche earlier in the week.

The Toronto International Film Festival wraps this Sunday, September 15.


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