If the opening night slot at any major festival is a high-pressure position — one under which many a film has collapsed — the closing night is in an even less enviable position: at least everyone bothers to see the opening film. Knowing that many journalists will already have flown the coop by the last day, festival programmers rarely leave something truly tasty to the very end, often handing the slight to something eminently skippable and/or low-profile.
Cannes has particular form in this area — barely a word was breathed about this year’s closer, “Therese D,” even if it was the late Claude Miller’s final film — and Toronto tends to take a similar approach, the festival’s recent closing selections having included “Stone of Destiny” (no, I don’t remember either) and last year’s “Page Eight,” a dreary Rachel Weisz-starring spy drama that had already premiered on British TV.
Still, there have been notable exceptions to the closing-night curse: Venice picked a winner last year with Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress,” just the tonic jaded critics needed after 10 days of heavyweight viewing, and I wonder if Toronto has been a little savvier this year with the selection of “Song for Marion,” a feelgood British dramedy that has already been picked up for US distribution by The Weinstein Company.
In terms of marquee value, “Song for Marion” doesn’t seem like much of a draw. However much we love Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Gemma Arterton — they won’t have punters queuing around the block, while talented British director Paul Andrew Williams hasn’t only established a quiet name for himself in his home country. (His microbudget 2006 debut, “London to Brighton,” was exhilarating, and netted him a BAFTA nod among other accolades, but his genre-flavored follow-ups “The Cottage” and “Cherry Tree Lane” didn’t deliver on his promise.)
But something tells me both Toronto and the Weinsteins might be onto something. The potentially sentimental premise of “Song for Marion” — a curmudgeonly pensioner joins his wife’s “unconventional” church choir (I have a feeling the photo above could be a clue) after she becomes terminally ill — doesn’t suggest a surefire critical hit. It could, however, portend an audience favorite, particularly in a year where geriatric-focused cinema has belied the industry’s usual focus on youth.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” with its crowded ensemble of British veterans, has been nothing short of a box office phenomenon: it’s currently the ninth-highest grosser of the year at home, and has taken an impressive $45 million across the pound, proving the ticket-buying power of the under-served over-50 audience. At the other end of the artistic scale, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner “Amour,” which focuses almost exclusively on the marriage of two octogenarians, is perhaps the most unanimously acclaimed film of the year.
Count on both receiving some kind of awards push at the end of the year, with Clint Eastwood in “Trouble With the Curve,” sixtysomething summer surprise “Hope Springs” and Dustin Hoffman’s Toronto-bound “Quartet” — another elderly ensemble piece, led by Maggie Smith — potentially set to join them. The advanced average age of Academy voters comes up for discussion every season: this year, they’ll have a lot to choose from that caters directly to their demographic.
With no reviews to go on, we can only guess whether or not “Song for Marion” will prove sufficiently sparky, or too modest, to catch on outside the festival circuit. Nathaniel Rogers has cannily had Vanessa Redgrave on his Best Supporting Actress roster from the get-go, before the film was on my or most people’s radar: it certainly sounds an awards-friendly role, particularly with the Weinsteins behind her. Then again, that supposed Weinstein muscle somehow couldn’t engineer any kind of awards traction for her monumental turn in “Coriolanus” last year, and I’ll eat my tweed flatcap if this performance tops that one. This sweeter proposition could catch more flies of the talk out of Toronto is good — first, however, it needs people to stick around to see it.