TIFF 2014 Diary: Cracking Benedict Cumberbatch's code

Highlights from the sixth day of the festival, including The Imitation Game's spy master and A Good Kill's Ethan Hawke

Benedict Cumberbatch, centre, stars in The Imitation Game (TIFF)

Benedict Cumberbatch, centre, stars in The Imitation Game (TIFF)

For journalists and cinephiles alike, the Toronto International Film Festival is a heady 11-day stew of screenings, interviews and alcohol-soaked after-parties. Throughout this week and the next, Maclean’s will be delivering daily updates on every aspect of this year’s monstrous festival (free booze and sliders not included—sorry).

The movies

At last year’s festival, Benedict Cumberbatch was the man about town. With roles in The Fifth Estate, August: Osage County and 12 Years a Slave, Cumberbatch was omnipresent, popping up at screenings, red carpets, interview junkets and too many parties to count (often while sporting a snazzy tuxedo, which I nicknamed the Cumberbund—oh, those were heady days). Unfortunately for Cumberbatch, The Fifth Estate bombed and August: Osage County quickly faded from memory, despite its all-star cast. Only 12 Years a Slave triumphed once out of the festival cocoon, but Cumberbatch’s small role had little to do with its success.

One year later, the actor is back in Toronto and seeking redemption with The Imitation Game, a stirring new drama that erases any bad memories of 2013. As Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician who cracked Germany’s codes and helped turn the tide of the Second World War, Cumberbatch delivers an all-in performance that cements the “For Your Consideration” chatter. Although the film, directed by Morten Tyldum of Headhunters fame, could have used a few budgetary touch-ups (just because stock footage is cheap doesn’t mean it’s necessary), it’s handsomely shot, excellently paced and legitimately fascinating, introducing a war hero few outside of Britain have ever heard of. Shame that Turing never straps on a tuxedo—but there’s always Oscar season in six short months.

For those looking for something completely different, there’s The Duke of Burgundy, director Peter Strickland’s Sapphic S&M drama. Essentially a two-hander about a wealthy butterfly expert (Sidse Babett, from the Danish TV juggernaut Borgen) and her submissive, needy lover Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna, who starred in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio), the film is an irresistible oddity. While it’s laced with erotica, Strickland never reveals much of any flesh, and the two leads barely embrace. Instead, the film is a mannered affair that explores love and all its complications—desire, pain, humiliation—in a compelling, lushly shot portrait of a relationship gone toxic.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the hypnotic world Strickland creates. No men are ever shown on screen, and the story’s location and even time period are kept vague. Rare is the film that builds its own world so carefully and expertly, but The Duke of Burgundy is a mini-master class on concept and execution. Come for the promise of titillation, stay for the sublime filmmaking.

The talent

Believe it or not, Tuesday was the only day of the festival where I had failed to book a single interview. Not that I’m complaining—it was a relief to have one day to simply write and attend screenings instead of being plunked down in a shiny hotel room and subjected to repeated refrains of, “We’re just running a bit late . . .” (I kid, I kid! Publicists, keep your heads up, you’re doing a great job. And please don’t blacklist me.)

The parties

Harvey Weinstein, AFI director Todd Wagner and Keira Knightley (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

Harvey Weinstein, AFI director Todd Wagner and Keira Knightley (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

Wherever Harvey Weinstein goes, celebrities follow. At least, that’s been the maxim ever since the mega-producer started attending TIFF, as actors both young and established line up to kiss Weinstein’s sizable ring, Godfather-style. The former Miramax chief’s party last year for August: Osage County, for instance, drew more stars than a Golden Globes luncheon, with Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift, Ewan McGregor and Chris Cooper packing themselves into the Soho House.

There was slightly less wattage this year, though, as Weinstein took over three floors of the Soho House to fete The Imitation Game, his big bet for Oscar glory. While  Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and director Mortem Tyldum mingled and snacked—ever so delicately—on lamb, crab legs and oysters, there was a big, gaping celebrity chasm: Benedict Cumberbatch. The film’s star had to catch a late flight back to London, leaving Sherlock fans with their own mystery to solve: “How will he ever propose to me at this party if he’s not here? That simply won’t do.” Still, the Grey Goose-sponsored event drew enough up-and-comers—including Jack O’Connell, star of TIFF selection ’71 and Angelina Jolie’s upcoming directorial effort Unbroken—to compensate. Oh, and some guy named Wayne Gretzky, who will probably never make it in Hollywood.

A few blocks over at Storeys cocktail bar, the Great Cumberbatch Scandal of 2014 That I Just Concocted was barely a blip on the radar of those celebrating A Good Kill, the new drama starring Ethan Hawke. The Boyhood star occupied the centre of the Ketel-sponsored space, while insiders—many of whom were just innocent boys a few decades ago! Oh, that Richard Linklater movie really affected me—snacked on chicken croquettes, sliders and crab cakes. All while drowning their post-childhood sorrows, no doubt, with vodka. Oh, TIFF: you grew up so fast.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.