In Toast, The Duel Arts of Reduction and Seduction

Premiered as a BBC1 telefilm, now flaunting its wasteful widescreen in theaters, Toast adapts the autobiography of Nigel Slater, a popular British food writer looking back in condescension on the Midlands of his youth. The film begins in the middle-class Wolverhampton home where young Nigel is raised on a tinned-food diet by his asthmatic mum (Victoria Hamilton), a cook who could burn water, and his chronically indigested, owlish dad (Ken Stott). Nigel's only respite is the visits of a free-spirited young gardener in motorcycle leathers — the way Nigel gazes on his mentor gives us some inkling of the boy's nascent adult desires. When mum passes, she's replaced by Helena Bonham Carter's lower-class housekeeper — a gifted cook — who seduces dad and competes for his affection through food preparation with Nigel, who has grown into a home economics prodigy. Oscar Kennedy and Freddie Highmore, respectively playing Nigel as an adolescent and teenager, are remarkably well-matched in lack of screen presence, if not in looks. Slater's book was evidently an ax-grinder, and the resulting film, directed with tone-deaf comic rhythm by S.J. Clarkson, shows pity and bemusement for the people raising Nigel but rarely human interest in them. More damning still, even the food looks ugly.


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