‘Toast’ is just a little overdone
With some movies, it’s easy to point to the one element that throws the whole thing out of whack. In “Toast,’’ that would be the music - a glutinously “sensitive’’ wash of piano and strings, composed by Ruth Barrett, that gets smeared over entire scenes like high-fructose jam. The score only stops to make room for a playlist of Dusty Springfield songs, as if that’s all there was to listen to in late-1960s England if you were a young, closeted foodie. Maybe it was the only music that made sense.
Made for British telly (where the ratings were through the roof), “Toast’’ has been adapted from the memoirs of Nigel Slater, a chef, cookbook author, and food writer much better known in England than here. The film’s best scenes come in the first half, as young Nigel (played with alert calm by Oscar Kennedy) grapples with the tragedy of growing up a gourmand in a fast-food home. Forget his sexuality; it’s his palate that’s aching to break its bonds, although a freshly plucked radish offered by a hunky gardener scratches both itches.
Nigel’s parents are bourgeois West Midlanders who look at their small, punctilious son and see an alien. Mum (Victoria Hamilton) has never bought a meal that didn’t come in a tin, and short-tempered Dad (Ken Stott) sniffs the Parmesan he’s supposed to shake onto his spaghetti Bolognese and grumbles, “Smells like sick.’’ If you can get past that music score - it keeps coming at you like a well-dressed drunk at a party - these sequences nicely balance the comic mortification of a born snob in middle-class hell with the excitement of sensing that something better might be - has to be - out there.
“Toast’’ takes a turn for the worse, though, when Mum dies and Dad starts dating the cleaning lady. The good news: The cleaning lady, Mrs. Potter, is played by Helena Bonham Carter. The bad news: The movie can’t make up its mind what we’re supposed to think of her.
Nigel knows what he thinks of Mrs. Potter: He hates her. Hates her lower-class accent, her blithe views on adultery, the council house she sneaks out of at night. He especially hates that she’s a brilliant cook, with a lemon meringue pie that’s a glimpse of God. After a while, it occurs to us that we’re supposed to hate her, too.
The problem is that Nigel is now being played by Freddie Highmore, the talented child actor who has matured into a tall, astonishingly dull teenager. Bonham Carter, meanwhile, is never less than delightful as she roisters around in Mrs. Potter’s dowdy housedresses, a cigarette forever threatening to drop ashes in the ragout. “Toast’’ becomes a contest of wills between the prim young wannabe chef and the grizzled master, with clueless Dad the prize they fight for. But the audience is increasingly on her side and increasingly sees Nigel as an officious little prat.
Director S.J. Clarkson seems oblivious to the dissonance; perhaps he’s deafened by the music. The script by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott’’) doesn’t make matters clearer. I could pile on the cooking metaphors until you cried “uncle,’’ but the fact remains that there’s a very good movie in here that its makers have failed to bring off. Eventually, Nigel gets a job as a sous chef, kisses his first boy, and heads out into the world, where, we’re told, he “never saw Mrs. Potter again.’’ By then, all you can think is: his bloody loss.