I skipped out on the big political event of the Toronto International Film Festival, the premiere of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, a screening at which the director brought out Flint residents and Parkland survivors to drive home the immediacy of the documentary. Moore’s films are designed to galvanize audiences’ reactions into action, although given the track record of his chosen team during the year in which he unveils a new doc, perhaps it’s time to question his efficacy. Drawing a straight line between any one thing and a desired political outcome proves an impossible task, although it does not stop Trump detractors for getting their hopes up every time a damning new piece of evidence arises. (John Oliver’s “WE GOT HIM!” running gag perfectly satirizes this incurable hopefulness of the resisters.)
Instead, I was across town at Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (in theaters Nov. 9), a different type of historical epic that gets political without resorting to the polemical. At a dense 154 minutes, many at Toronto derided the film as boring or tedious, but I found Leigh’s portrayal of a fraught moment in British history riveting. His portrayal of how social change is made in sustained pressure on the political power structure, rather than in sweeping moments, feels like a more honest and measured look at the triumph of democratic ideals.
Despite the grand scope of Peterloo, Leigh still begins with his usual process of building a story up from the characters. This strategy allows him to provide a rich, detailed texture of everyday life for the common people of England. From there, the sociopolitical stakes of the film arise organically as the struggling workers strive for a truly representative democracy rather than merely suffering the consequences of tyranny from an elite, entrenched majority. Leigh spends a substantial portion of the film on small speeches and conversations, which may seem a bit trite or inconsequential as they progress. Yet it’s here that the moral arc of the universe bends slowly toward justice, with every small step nudging people out of complacency and into action.
Leigh was far from the only filmmaker to engage with the current political climate through the lens of history. Hungarian director László Nemes, fresh of the smashing success of his debut feature Son of Saul, returned to Toronto with Sunset (U.S. release TBA). The film, another close collaboration with his masterful director of photography Mátyás Erdély, further pushes the possibilities of Nemes’ chosen aesthetic of radical subjectivity and first-person perspective.
In Son of Saul, Nemes used this video-game-like aesthetic, which gives the viewer a sensation akin to following an avatar through the world, to plunge us head-first into the experience of a man who must navigate the horrors of a concentration camp. Sunset, however, uses the point of view of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) to slowly pull back the curtain on the papered-over divisions hanging on by a thread in 1913 Budapest. Her quest for answers in a family saga unsettles everyone she encounters in town, all of whom fear that what she discovers might finally fracture their fragile peace. As she probes the boundaries of her history, Írisz discovers a town already in mourning as if they can sense the fleeting nature of the present moment. Nemes and Erdély’s kinetic vision of the camera helps this simple story sustain for as long as it does, though Sunset drags quite a bit before really picking up in a wild third act.
The imminent sense of societal collapse also looms large in Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (U.S. release TBA), which foregrounds three periods in the life of an American pop star against three violent events, both real and imagined. There’s a Columbine-style shooting, 9/11, and a fictional ISIS-style group of masked terrorists slaughtering European civilians at the beach. Willem Dafoe’s narrator lays out the connection between these two planes in didactic terms, frequently interjecting with commentary on how the events depicted on screen are direct consequences of larger political forces like Reaganomics and Trumpism.
The personal is not indistinguishable from the political, as Corbet avoids holding his audience’s hand through an easy allegory or metaphor. He rejects a simple corollary relationship between violence and the pop-culture industrial complex, but he scrutinizes it for some kind of connection. Vox Lux makes for a challenging watch, especially because Natalie Portman’s performance as the diva Celeste – which is essentially her persona from the SNL rap video played for drama rather than laughs – beguiles us into surface-level pleasures. And that feels part of the point, a kind of “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” mantra applied at a conceptual level. Pop music is not the cause of American violence, but it might be symptomatic of a larger societal indolence.
Corbet structures his script around two acts, Genesis and Regenesis, and brackets them with an extended prologue/epilogue. It’s the rare instance when a film feels like it needs another full movement to drive home and fully flesh out its themes; I’d have watched another 45 minutes to see him complete his thoughts. As is, Vox Lux circles interesting ideas but never gives itself the time to provide them any more than a cursory treatment.
Another politically-tinged TIFF title suffering no such problems of precision was Steve McQueen’s Widows (in theaters Nov. 16), a heist thriller without an ounce of fat on its runtime. Like McQueen’s dramas, the film functions like a fine-tuned machine without so much as a shot out of place. There’s one standout shot that sums up the movie so fully that the camera should have panned around to show McQueen doing the chef’s kiss. To provide too much detail would rob the shot of its punch (imagine, for example, knowing how long “the pie scene” in A Ghost Story lasted before seeing the film). But like so much else in Widows, the shot effortlessly distills the themes of the film into visual terms – the underpinnings of racial disparity despite geographic proximity, the tensions of balancing sound governance with the need for reelection, and the sham arrangements drawn up by the ruling class to entrench their power at the expense of their constituents.
Widows offered the most cogent expression of current political dynamics I saw at Toronto. The script, adapted for the screen by McQueen along with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, exhibits a nuanced understanding of how gender, class, age, and race interact with every element of the revenge caper. These dynamics are not merely a backdrop for the genre thrills but the justification for them altogether. As Viola Davis’ Veronica assembles the fellow widows of a botched robbery to recover the lost money from their husbands’ final mission, Widows slowly shows its hand. McQueen and Flynn find the story worth telling because through it, they can articulate a vision of women rising from the ashes of a world burnt down by men to find economic self-sufficiency. The film’s depiction of how women (in particular women of color) can emerge from oppressively patronizing arrangements set up as little more than a PR stunt by disinterested politicians is an unexpected but earned development.
The way McQueen harnesses the power of political energy and allows it to infuse a genre tale is nothing short of a marvel. He does not settle for merely diagnosing social ills; he goes so far as to present a path for progress that is aspirational yet attainable. (Minus, hopefully, the murder, crime, and robbery.) He wraps it all up in a storytelling format meant to reach more than the proverbial choir to which simple-minded filmmakers preach. If you’re looking for hope and change from films out of Toronto, look no further than Widows.