By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Oct 07, 2011
It's often a secret ingredient that elevates a dish from mundane to mind-blowing. A few extra chocolate chips or an added dash of vanilla make a cookie better, but the most important element isn't something found at a grocery store; it's love. Maybe that's why this dubious claim made early in "Toast" seems slightly believable: "It's impossible not to love someone who's made you toast."
The someone in question in S.J. Clarkson's uneven drama is the mother of food writer and British television personality Nigel Slater (the movie is based on his memoir). When Slater was growing up in the 1960s, his mother was hapless in the kitchen, shrinking from the standing mixer and mystified by dry pasta. So when whatever rudimentary meal she made - always something out of a can - went up in smoke, she nourished her family of three with a go-to meal of buttery toast.
What mum (Victoria Hamilton) lacks in cooking skills, she makes up for in kindness. And thank goodness, because Nigel's father (Ken Stott) is a cartoonishly rendered sourpuss, whose only words to his son amount to some kind of criticism. As an adorable schoolboy in knee-high socks, shorts and Fair Isle sweaters, young Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) begins hungering for the one thing he hasn't had - real food. He stays up late at night to read cookbooks under the covers and occasionally visits an imaginary land where he is the cashier in a market, handing out fresh produce to customers.
But when Nigel's mother falls ill, the boy's already precarious home life seems doomed to misery. And to make matters worse, the new cleaning woman, Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), arrives. If Nigel's mother is the world's sweetest culinary catastrophe, Mrs. Potter is her perfect foil. The housekeeper's tight frocks perpetually reveal her garter belt, and she manages to morph everyday chores, including lamp-cleaning and vacuuming, into a parade of sexual suggestiveness. But, man, can she make a mean lemon meringue pie.
It's easy to feel sorry for young Nigel (later played by Freddie Highmore), who ends up consistently assaulted by dad's temper tantrums and the maid's cigarette smoke. Yet, for the most part, the movie feels like an emotional vacuum, mirroring the drab vanilla and mint green interiors of the Slaters' home. If there's any love to be found, it's in the care taken when shooting colorful plates of food. Red tomatoes pop off the screen, and a simple leaf of lettuce proves mouth-watering against the bland backdrop.
But freshly picked veggies aren't the secret ingredient, capable of lifting the film from ho-hum to poignant. Something else is missing, and it can't be found in stores.
Contains brief nudity, sexual situations and scenes of projectile vomit.