October 13, 2011
At 9 years old, Nigel had never eaten a vegetable that didn’t come from a can. His mother is not gifted in the culinary arts, preferring to boil prefab dinners on her stove. And when those meal plans go awry, there’s always buttered toast as backup. The boy spends his nights poring over cookbooks and fantasizing about the dinners that could be had with a little kitchen savvy. The story plays out like a fairytale set in mid-1960s Britain. When Nigel’s mother dies, his father takes on Mrs. Potter as a housekeeper and romantic interest. As it turns out, she’s a phenomenal cook and not at all interested in playing the role of a doting mother. With Nigel’s burgeoning culinary talents beginning to emerge, the pair try to use their prowess in the kitchen to win the father’s affections. Bullied by the adults in his life and starved for the companionship of people his own age, Nigel turns to the kitchen as a source of solace. So goes Toast, a movie based on the memoir by English food writer Nigel Slater that explores his coming of age by way of the foods that marked his childhood. Food is explored as a source of comfort, a means of connecting with other people, a means of escape—and as a weapon.
I love the idea of telling a life story through the lens of a dinner plate, and the film really comes alive when the gloriously photographed edibles grace the screen, no matter whether they come from a tin or from hours of slaving over a stove. It’s in those interludes that we get glimpses of genuine tenderness—such as when Nigel’s mother tries to teach her son how to make mincemeat pies, the one thing she can make well from scratch. They are the most memorable sources of humor, namely the culinary battle of wills between stepmother and stepson, which escalates to the point where Nigel spends his afternoons spying on Mrs. Potter in order to learn her well-guarded recipe for lemon meringue pie. It’s in home economics class that Nigel finds the one place where he’s able to shine and be accepted by his peers.
The food photography and even the sound editing are glorious. It’s strange to thrill at the sound of someone biting into a piece of toast. And yet, some clever person in the editing room was able to create a sonic portrait of a most basic food item that evokes cozy breakfasts at home whenever that distinctive crunching sound comes through the speaker system. Even the canned foods have a bit of character in the bright labels that mask their underwhelming contents and as we see them bubbling away in a pot of boiling water. And when we get to the feasts prepared by Mrs. Potter and Nigel, it’s nothing but eye candy.
Between courses, we have to get to know the characters—and they’re not your cut-and-dried fairytale figures. Nigel is constantly dealing with loss, loneliness and having a new woman in the role of his mother, so he displays a lot of anger and resentment—although at times this can be a little abrasive. For example, when making pies with his mother, unable to cope with the fact that she’s dying and realizing they can’t complete the job because they’re out of mincemeat, Nigel breaks down into a tantrum, shouting out “I hate you! I wish you would die!” I can understand the anger, but what breed of brat would say something like this? Furthermore, the boy displays a sense of elitism and class consciousness that, frankly, is pretty ugly, referring to Mrs. Potter as common and being sure to publicly point out that she was living in low-income housing before coming to live with him and his father.
Similarly, Mrs. Potter is not your typical evil stepmother. While she puts forth little to no effort to endear herself to the boy, she also seems to be someone dealing with loneliness. When we first meet her, she’s already married, sneaking out of the house in order to spend time with Mr. Slater, childishly shimmying out of a window in order to get out of her house. When she’s out at dinner parties with higher society, she’s hopelessly out of place with her rough-edged social graces. While the film tries to further vilify Mrs. Potter by implying that she fed her husband to death, it never offers a motive. If anything, her elaborate courses seem to garner her positive attention from a man who dotes on her. She seems to be someone who, like Nigel, is suffering from loneliness, but doesn’t deal with it in healthy ways—a vision of what the boy could become if he continues on his present course. When the movie leaves off, we know that the boy can cook, but not that he can create positive and substantial human relationships, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how he turns out. (Granted, we can look to the real-life Nigel Slater, but shouldn’t the movie be a self-contained package?)
The characters are perfectly human. I wasn’t able to wholeheartedly rally around any one of them, with their fair mix of charm and faults. It makes for fascinating watching picking apart the relationships, but it makes it difficult to emotionally invest in anyone. When Nigel leaves home, it feels like the logical conclusion to things. Without anyone he held near and dear, there was nothing at stake—aside from general personal happiness—and this moment doesn’t have much emotional payoff. But there again, how often does real life play out like a movie?
It’s absolutely worth watching for the food, the pitch-perfect 1960s aesthetics, the Dusty Springfield soundtrack and Helena Bonham Carter’s sassy and sharp-tongued Mrs. Potter. Toast is currently enjoying a limited release here in the United States, so check your local theater listings to see if it’s playing in your area. (The Landmark Theaters chain carries it here in Washington, D.C. and you can see if they have locations near you.) Or you can wait until it’s available to rent, or stream, or watch in whatever way you manage your home movie entertainment.
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