There’s lots of luscious-looking food in this stylized adaptation of celebrity chef Nigel Slater’s recollections of his unhappy childhood. But unfortunately director SJ Clarkson is so obsessed with the look of “Toast” that he’s neglected to put much soul into it. The picture emerges—like another recent, equally quirky British tale of precocious youth, “Submarine”—as a visual feast that nonetheless seems emotionally parched.
Two-thirds of the picture center on Slater as a nine-year old boy (Oscar Kennedy). His mother (Victoria Hamilton) is a lovely, loving woman, but she’s physically fragile and a terrible cook, serving up virtually nothing that doesn’t come from a can (her attempts at anything more elaborate are inevitably disastrous, and often she’s left with serving nothing but toast—thus the film’s title). That’s perhaps one of the reasons that his father (Ken Stott) is so short-tempered, but the old man is also more than a little annoyed by his son’s obsession with food, something nurtured by his friendship with the family’’ young gardener, who introduces the lad to the wonders of fresh produce before he’s abruptly fired. (One of the mysteries of the story is why there’s a vegetable garden on the property in the first place—though perhaps the British audience would understand.)
When Mom succumbs to her weak lungs, Dad hires a housekeeper, Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), a woman young Nigel despises for “replacing” her mother but even more because she’s low-class and crude. But she’s a fabulous cook, which is certainly one reason the widower marries her despite his son’s obvious distaste.
The last third of “Toast” jumps ahead some years, and Nigel is now played by Freddie Highmore. Still loathing his stepmother, he decides to learn to outcook her, taking home economics in school (the sole boy to do so), and excelling at the stove. She in turn sees his effort as a threat and redoubles her own culinary production. The boy even takes a part-time job at a local restaurant to hone his skills, much to her displeasure. More importantly, he meets there a young man—a would-be ballet dancer (shades of “Billy Elliot,” which Lee Hall also wrote)—and spends a romantic afternoon with him that opens a new world for him and coincides almost exactly with his father’s sudden death. Feeling liberated, the young man leaves home and goes off to the city to find a job in a big restaurant and learn the trade for real. (Slater himself plays the chef who takes him on, rather suddenly it seems.)
There’s the stuff of an affecting coming-of-age story like “Elliot” in Slater’s story, but instead of following the lead of that film’s director Stephen Daldry, Clarkson opts for the affected approach of Richard Ayoade, who made “Submarine.” He treats the characters as seriocomic caricatures, not bothering to invest them with truly human qualities. Even Kennedy and Highmore, who play the young versions of Slater, remain stiff and remote, barely hazarding a smile; and their aversion to Mrs. Potter seems based on a class-conscious snobbishness that American audiences, at least, may well find off-putting. Not that Bonham Carter holds back in that part; she’s an authentic horror, without any shading or nuance. Stott, a fine actor, brings occasional moments of honest humanity to Nigel’s father, and so does Hamilton to his mother. But their secondary figures can’t fully compensate for the emotional vacuum at the center of the film, and apart from Matthew McNulty’s engagingly loose turn as the gardener who turns Nigel on to veggies, the supporting cast is stuck in the stereotyping mode as well.
For a low-budget telefilm, “Toast” has a lovely look, with Balazs Bolygo’s HD camerawork rich and textured; it captures the voluptuousness of Katharine Tidy’s dishes very nicely indeed. The sixties period design is also expertly reflected in the production design (Tom Burton), art direction (Tim Sykes) and costumes (Sarah Arthur).
But despite the gorgeous toppings ladled onto it, “Toast” proves too dry and brittle a meal to be fully satisfying.