British Films at Toronto Find Contemporary Resonance in Historical Subjects

The U.K. has a robust presence at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and several of the films screening there find contemporary resonance while exploring historical subjects.

In Thea Sharrock’s 1920s-set “Wicked Little Letters,” Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley play neighbors who get on each other’s nerves in a small English town where residents start receiving anonymous, expletive-laden letters. Sharrock sees parallels in the film’s theme with today’s social media trolling replacing poison-pen letters.

“The parallels are both so immediate and so obvious, but they’re very subtly made in the writing and therefore in the film,” Sharrock says. “You wonder how far we’ve come in 100 years. Technology-wise, it’s very obvious how far we’ve come, but as human beings in terms of humanity, actually, how much is exactly the same? And how much have we developed in a good way? And then perhaps also in a negative way? The use of language is really important in this movie, and trolling is a big thing, as we know, privately and publicly. And so the parallel is stark, to be honest.”

James Hawes’ “One Life” tells the true story of Nicholas “Nicky” Winton, a young London banker who, on the eve of WWII, saved 669 children from the Nazis — more than the number of children who survived the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia — and found them homes in England. Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn both play Winton at different stages of his life. 

As the world is going through a refugee crisis, Hawes told Variety that the film feels “timely,” “resonant” and “utterly relevant to the world we live in today, both at issue level and individual level.”

The striking quality of Winton, both in real life and the film, is his modesty. “He did it because it was the right thing to do, not for any hope of reflection upon him,” Hawes says. “In an age where charitable giving tends to be the first thing you do right before you post it on Instagram, there is a lesson there for the nature of human generosity and decency and what that can mean.”

“There’s a story about humanity, there’s a story about decency and there’s a story about possibility for what we can do if when moved by that, to change the world in all the darkness that seems surround us today. So I would hope that it’s about human spirit, way beyond its historical context,” Hawes adds.

History also finds a resounding modern echo in Michael Winterbottom’s 1938 British Mandatory Palestine-set “Shoshana.” As the ruling British struggle to maintain order among the Jewish and Palestinian population, the titular character, played by Irina Starshenbaum, the daughter of a Zionist leader, must choose between her lover, English police officer Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth), and her people’s independence.

“It is a story of how extremism can fracture society and violence is used as a means of politics, how just extremist politics can force people to be hostile to each other,” Winterbottom tells Variety. “In Britain, we’ve had Brexit, and we’re very much on one side or other of the argument, America has Trump and you have the extreme case of what’s going on in Ukraine. I hope the film is about how, even if you disagree with someone, you should be able to argue with them, discuss things, but work together. It’s a plea for moderation, the center ground. I think that is particularly relevant at the moment in lots of places in the world.”

The parallels extend to the world of sport as well. Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine’s documentary “Copa 71” recounts the story of the unofficial 1971 Women’s World Cup, a hugely popular moment virtually erased from the history of soccer. It comes at a time when the 2023 soccer Women’s World Cup has proved to be immensely popular with record viewership around the globe. The documentary addresses myths around women’s sport including that the skill isn’t high enough and that it’s not commercial.

“What we really did with this film was to really blow that out of the water 50 years ago — if 50 years ago, that wasn’t true, why is there still this hangover that’s going on now?” Ramsay asks. Erskine added that for decades women’s soccer was marketed to women only and that the statistics for the 2023 Women’s World Cup prove that it was popular across genders. “Hopefully, our film is for everybody to see and enjoy, it’s not a film targeted at a purely female audience,” Erskine says.

Among other U.K. selections at TIFF, Ellen Kuras’ “Lee,” starring Kate Winslet as American photojournalist Lee Miller, is an example of how a woman broke into a traditionally male-dominated space, using WWII as a backdrop. And Kristin Scott Thomas’ directorial debut “North Star,” with Scarlett Johansson and Sienna Miller, examines how women must let go of historical memories of men to move on.

Toronto this year also boasts of a U.K. film set in contemporaneous times that does not draw a direct parallel to history but is rather informed by it. “Unicorns,” by Sally El Hosaini with actor James Krishna Floyd debuting as a co-director, follows the relationship between a single father Luke (Ben Hardy) and Aysha/Ashiq (Jason Patel), who has an avatar as a femme drag queen. The film, a significant portion of which is set within the U.K.’s thriving “gaysian” scene, benefited from the involvement of Asifa Lahore, the country’s first out Muslim drag queen and transgender woman.

Floyd says that for centuries Indian culture, before any colonial influence or even before the Mughal era, has had a third gender and there are references to sexual fluidity in ancient texts like the Kama Sutra, adding that one of the main influences of modern South Asian drag queens is the dancing “item girl” in Bollywood films, who seduces her manly prince in exchange for protection and security.

“If it wasn’t for the more conservative traditions of older South Asian culture, then my generation and younger would be more tolerated for our fluid identity, especially sexuality and gender. Yet we have learned our free-flowing identity expression from the same traditional ancient cultures that our parents have passed onto us, and sometimes use to oppress us,” Floyd says. “And in another similar paradox, if it wasn’t for the colonial Brits during the Raj inciting more prejudice in Indians against the freedom of gender and queer expression, it would have been easier for my generation to be accepted faster for our more non-binary attitudes. Yet second-generation South Asians living in the West [such as myself] have benefitted from the relative tolerance of modern Western culture of fluid identity. It’s all a complex contradiction. Just like my own identity, and the characters in my film.”

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