Seventh Row’s editors pick the best performances of TIFF 2021, from Jack Lowden in Benediction to Sigourney Weaver in The Good House.
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Seventh Row’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) coverage began with a list of the emerging actors to watch at the festival, and now, it ends with a celebration of the performances that will stick with us in the years to come. Some of them are fresh faces who were also on the emerging actors list, and some are old Seventh Row favourites, like Riz Ahmed, Anders Danielsen Lie, and Ben Foster. We’ve seen some of this generation’s best performers do potentially career-best work (Jack Lowden in Benediction), and bright young things continue to deliver complex, engaging work (Odessa Young in Mothering Sunday). Here’s a rundown of the best performances at TIFF 2021.
Riz Ahmed, Encounter
Encounter is such a preposterous and over-long film, it’s a tribute to Riz Ahmed’s always compelling presence that I made it through all two hours. Ahmed stars as Malik, a father of two boys, both of whom live with their mother. In the middle of the night, he picks them up for a road trip, which he soon claims is a rescue mission to protect them from an alien invasion. Despite very silly dialogue and an even sillier plot, Ahmed makes this man a believable character. One moment, he’s playfully joking with his children; the next, his body is tense, his eyes shifting back and forth, something not quite right. Sometimes, he manages both, reassuring his children in the backseat with his voice, while his face, seen only in the rearview mirror, reveals a man barely holding it together.
Malik is incredibly mercurial, doling out warm hugs one minute, and the next, snappily informing his eldest son that he can no longer afford to be a child. Slowly but surely, it’s revealed that Malik is not what he seems to be, something that his eldest son (and we) suspect from early on because of his emotionally volatile state. The tense but loving relationship Ahmed creates with Malik’s children is especially thoughtful, bringing out the best in both child actors. You may never believe what the film is selling, but you always believe that Malik is a real person. Alex Heeney
Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, Ali & Ava
In Ali & Ava, two middle-aged people with complicated baggage fall in love, with the UK city of Bradford as the backdrop. Ava is played by Claire Rushbrook, a British character actress who has had scarce meaty, high-profile roles since she was great in Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996). Ali is played by Adeel Akhtar, best known as a comedic actor (he broke out in the 2010 absurdist comedy Four Lions, in which he co-starred with Riz Ahmed). They’re both familiar faces, but it’s great to see them tackle complex, dramatic (but still humorous) leading roles in Ali & Ava.
Akhtar and Rushbrook (who have wonderful chemistry) convey people who are totally smitten, but who still struggle to get past mostly internal obstacles to their relationship. Akhtar plays Ali as an extrovert, bringing all the comedic wit he’s famous for to the role, but his eyes are also tired and heavy, his expression often passive and his posture slumped (not to mention that he’s regularly seen wearing a red cap that shades his face). Meanwhile, despite how much Ava loves spending time with Ali — she smiles brightly at him and laughs at all his jokes — Ava is also incredibly nervous to pursue a romantic relationship. Rushbrook is constantly hesitating before Ava makes, or attempts to make, any kind of move, as if she doesn’t quite trust that she’s allowed to do this. They each sensitively portray the emotional baby steps Ali and Ava have to make toward each other, which makes their eventual union all the more satisfying and hard won. Orla Smith
Cherish Violet Blood, Scarborough
Blackfoot actress Cherish Violet Blood is so stunningly composed, controlled, and understated in Scarborough, it left me wondering why I’d never seen her before in a film. Despite her very few screen credits, she’s an established and accomplished theatre actress, but I hope her wonderful turn in Scarborough will translate to more film work in the future.
She plays Marie, an exhausted single mother to two children, who’s kind, loving, and trying her best, but struggling to cope with the sheer amount of responsibilities piled on her shoulders.
In her first scene, she visits a doctor about getting her son a possible autism diagnosis, but the doctor dismisses her concerns, saying it’d be easier to just leave him undiagnosed until further notice. Blood’s face and voice says it all in this scene: there’s a note of indignation, but Blood is otherwise calm, keeping her emotions in check. She only rolls her eyes when the doctor is looking away. The tension in her body comes out in her hands, which are captured in closeup as she clasps them against her knees. Her anger is tempered by sheer exhaustion and the long-held knowledge that, as a marginalised woman, standing up for herself against authority figures is often a losing game. Right off the bat, Blood conveys so much about this woman who is constantly fighting battles that she doesn’t always win. OS
Chumisa Cosa, Good Madam
Chumisa Cosa’s Tsidi is such a compelling horror leading lady in Good Madam: she’s smart and always skeptical of the creepy goings on around her; she’s tough but still vulnerable. Tsidi is a mother who reluctantly takes her young daughter to live with Tsidi’s own estranged mother, who lives as a maid in a rich white woman’s house. It’s a smart film that turns the horrors of being a Black domestic worker in post-Apartheid South Africa into a haunted house film. Cosa’s performance makes the film: she conveys a modern, headstrong Black South African woman struggling against her family’s history of domestic servitude, which represents everything she doesn’t want for herself and her daughter. Even before the film becomes explicitly supernatural, there’s always tension in her face and voice. She conveys the very real horror of worrying what racist ideas might be rubbing off on her daughter, and nervously wondering if she’s correct that the white madam of the house is sinister, or if it’s just all in her head. OS
Jack Lowden, Benediction
After years of fantastic supporting work, Jack Lowden finally gets a starring role worthy of his talents in Benediction, flexing his comedic and dramatic skills. As WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, who has a traumatic war experience and a series of bad romances, Lowden’s work is incredibly technically accomplished, though so emotionally resonant you might not notice. There’s nuanced voice work — emphasizing certain words and consonants, reading out Sassoon’s poetry — which Lowden complements with a physically contained performance as a man of boiling emotions forced to be kept at a simmer.
In an early scene, when Lowden faces a military tribunal, the way he puts emphasis on the consonants reveals that Sassoon is seething, wishing he were allowed to speak out but forced to rein it in for the people who love him. He also shifts bit by bit in his seat, uncomfortable keeping still when that’s what’s required. Later, when he’s in therapy with Dr. Rivers, he starts in a similar physicality, but as he learns he can trust Dr. Rivers, he averts his eyes, fiddles with his hands, and reveals his emotions — until he gains the confidence to make eye contact. By the time the war is over, he’s comfortable enough in his own skin to volley catty barbs with other gay men and reveal his romantic feelings which were always bottled up during the war.
He is a man at war with himself, and Lowden constantly shows us his contradictory emotions: the vulnerable bashfulness of Sassoon at the beginning of a courtship, and the callous Sassoon who will watch another man get hurt in love knowing he’s the cause of it. Lowden nimbly moves between the scared and vulnerable Sassoon, to the angry but caged Sassoon, to the blithely acerbic Sassoon, without ever feeling like these are disconnected parts of his personality. He’s a man with a lot of feeling who hasn’t figured out how to unleash it, except perhaps until the very end of the film. AH
Ben Daniels, Benediction
Olivier Award winning actor Ben Daniels has been mostly absent from the stage for the last decade, taking supporting roles on television shows like The Crown. But in Benediction, he gets the kind of showcase supporting role that character actors dream of as the sardonic, quick-witted psychiatrist, Dr. Rivers, who treats Siegfried Sassoon during WWI. In a military institution characterized by formalities, Dr. Rivers is not what Sassoon expected: Daniels sits back, relaxed in his chair, uninterested in salutes. He has the tendency to make jokes at the expense of the army and other revered institutions.
It disarms Sassoon, and watching Daniels do it is magical. He can shift from exchanging quips to asking serious questions, but does so with such a gentle tone of voice that it forces Sassoon to consider the questions carefully, and open up. In one particularly excellent scene, they both come out to each other, in a roundabout way: long looks and coded language allow them to show that they understand each other.
Though Daniels only has a few scenes in Benediction, his impact is lasting. We may have only seen a couple of sessions with Dr. Rivers, but we can imagine weeks and weeks of them that happen off-screen; it’s an entirely lived-in performance. AH
Maren Eggert, I’m Your Man
A German actress best known for her work with Angela Schanelec (I Was at Home, But…, 2019; The Dreamed Path, 2016; Orly, 2010), Maren Eggert does exquisite work in Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man. If you won’t take our word for it, the Berlin Film Festival jury agrees: she took home their prestigious Silver Bear award for best performance. In the film, she plays Alma, a cuneiform researcher tasked with testing out her colleague’s AI robot (played by Dan Stevens), who has been calibrated to be Alma’s ‘perfect man’. It’s a clever study of relationships that works so well because Alma is such a sharp, witty character, who’s unfailingly skeptical about the robot’s ability to satisfy her intellectually. Eggert is so good at portraying a smart woman who’s always thinking, who struggles more and more to compartmentalise her emotions and logic as she warms to the robot. She’s also got a ton of witty comebacks that Eggert pulls off with style. OS
Ben Foster, The Survivor
In The Survivor, Ben Foster gives a stunning, psychologically complex turn as Holocaust survivor Harry Haft; director Barry Levinson gives him the time and space — both in his direction and the edit — to let the performance breathe. In addition to being one of the greatest actors currently working, Foster is especially adept at depicting characters living with trauma. In The Survivor, he wields stillness expertly, letting us see Harry think, feel, and struggle. The dialogue is regularly clumsy and overwrought, but you find yourself tearing up anyway because of a look or a move that Foster makes, transcending the script.
Even hampered by prosthetics, a dodgy accent (albeit one that you quickly forget about), and Justine Juel Gillmer’s clumsy script, Foster excels. After undergoing baptism by literal fire in Auschwitz, he shows us a man reluctantly becoming something he hates because he understands he has no choice but to do awful things in order to survive. Every little hesitation Foster makes depicts a world of helplessness and emotion. AH
Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska, Bergman Island
In Bergman Island, Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska give performances reminiscent of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. They both play versions of the same character, but one is the creation of the other. Krieps plays a filmmaker who has come to the island of Fårö with her partner, Tony (Tim Roth), to work on a screenplay. Wasikowska plays Amy, the protagonist in that screenplay. As the film progresses and Chris’s project takes shape, she and Amy become almost indistinguishable from one another. Often, they are emotionally mysterious, more so to their male partners than an astute viewer.
In one beautiful scene, Chris starts crying in bed and Tony assumes that it is because she misses her daughter. As Krieps turns her back to Tony with nostrils flaring and eyes blinking back tears, she perfectly communicates Chris’s long-standing frustration with her situation. Her sadness can’t be tied to one specific event, but is something that has been present in the relationship for ages. Krieps distills a history of disappointment and resentment into this brief exchange, appropriately shot in the Scenes from a Marriage bed. All of the previous tension between Chris and Tony suddenly makes sense. Tony doesn’t understand Chris, and his halfhearted attempts at doing so only amplify his deficiencies.
In a parallel scene taking place in Chris’s film within the film, Amy and her ex-boyfriend, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) reveal their own dysfunction. Lying in bed together post-coitus, Amy asks why Joseph chose to build a life with someone other than her. His response, full of judgement, makes Amy crumble just like Chris. Wasikowska conveys Amy’s emotions quietly, like they are something she has dealt with all her life, not just because of this particular man. What she wants — “two children with two men at the same time” — is not something society embraces. As Joseph tries to quell her discontent with physical affection, she initially resists but quickly acquiesces. Amy is the type of character who is aware that she’ll never get what she wants but can’t help trying anyway. Wasikowska conveys this inner turmoil throughout the film in a way that is often difficult to watch. Heartache is the only possible outcome for someone who doesn’t try to extinguish her own unattainable desires.
The emotions in Bergman Island are so subtle and layered that without these stellar performances, they might have gotten completely lost. Together, Krieps and Wasikowska portray different sides of the same woman: one who is slowly realizing that she’ll never get everything that she needs from other people (especially men). Lindsay Pugh
Anders Danielsen Lie, The Worst Person in the World and Bergman Island
Though filmed years apart, through a fluke of distribution, Anders Danielsen Lie has given two of the best performances of Cannes, TIFF, and indeed 2021. In The Worst Person in the World, Anders Danielsen Lie has the Ophelia challenge wherein most of the key events in his character’s life happen offscreen, so he has to show us the consequences of them without getting to perform the events. Like Ophelia, he’s technically a supporting character in the film, and yet he publishes a book, gets a film adaptation of his book, loses the love of his life, and has to reckon with his own mortality.
It’s a virtuoso performance. In the earlier sections of the film, it’s a particularly light, comedic performance, creating a charismatic romantic interest who can jokingly talk about the window he gazes through or suggest “let’s just fuck.” There are improvisatory moments of dance and playfulness. Later in the film, he’s a character who has experienced loss and disappointments, and he suddenly has lengthy monologues, including a tirade against cancel culture which somehow doesn’t make you hate him. He’s so often in the background, yet you feel like he could just as easily be the protagonist of the film because you know enough about him. Throughout, he’s a thoughtful, empathetic presence: a character you can fall hard for just as protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve) does.
In Bergman Island, he plays two characters: the fictional Joseph in the film Chris (Vicky Krieps) is writing, who represents the man who got away. Here, he’s a memory and a half-formed creative concoction, but Lie once again imbues Joseph with charisma and depth, if a bit more anger. He also shows up late in the film as an actor named Anders, a character meant to echo Joseph. Joseph’s story is of a love affair ending; Anders’s is of one that already has. Once again, Lie’s characters’ major changes and shifts happen offscreen, but we feel like we’ve been there for all of them. AH
Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World
In July, Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve took home the Cannes Best Actress Award for The Worst Person in the World. It’s easy to see why: this is a star-making turn. In her breakout role, Reinsve gets to play many different facets of her character, Julie, who is constantly trying to reinvent herself and find her path in life. The film is a close character study told in twelve chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. Each focuses on different aspects of Julie’s life, from falling in love, the pressure to have kids, toying with different creative and career paths, coping with break ups, dealing with her neglectful father, and more. Julie is a woman who’s smart, bubbly, and always open to new experiences; Reinsve is vulnerable, funny, and heartbreaking in the role. Even as Julie is unsure of how she is, Reinsve always keeps her intelligence, wit, and charm in full focus. OS
Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague, Montana Story
While I watched Montana Story excited to see a new performance from promising young actress Haley Lu Richardson (Columbus, Support the Girls), I came away equally impressed by her scene partner Owen Teague.
At just twenty-two, Owen Teague already has several supporting credits in high-profile films, such as It (2017), and TV shows including Bloodline (2015-2017) and Black Mirror (2017). Montana Story announces him as a compelling leading man. The film is a two hander between his character, Cal, and Cal’s sister, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), as they revisit old wounds while their father is dying. Cal is the less emotionally volatile of the pair; while Erin’s emotions are passionately expressed, her anger fresh and boiling, Cal is holding on to a lot of pain and guilt that he’s afraid to openly acknowledge. Teague balances quiet stoicism with sensitivity, implying that there’s more to Cal than he lets on.
He’s the perfect counterbalance to Richardson, who performs Erin as someone whose emotions are always on the surface, threatening to bubble over into an outburst, although she never falls into histrionics. Erin is holding on to so much anger toward Cal, whom she still blames for not stopping their father from physically abusing her. Richardson often plays charming, likeable characters, like her bubbly character in Support the Girls or her quiet but kind protagonist in Columbus. Here, her character is also kindhearted, but angrier and pricklier, showcasing another side to Richardson that we’ve rarely seen before. She never smooths down Erin’s rough edges. OS
Gong Seung-yeon, Aloners
Lead actress Gong Seung-yeon is the highlight of Aloners, a film about Jina (Gong), a lonely call centre worker who avoids almost all social contact. Her face remains passive for most of the film, but her body language tells us everything about Jina’s state of mind. She seems perpetually downturned, her posture slouched, head hanging, and hands stuffed inside her coat pockets. Gong communicates just how exhausted Jina is by life, so it’s easy to empathise with her unwillingness to interact with other human beings. She’s always compelling to watch, despite Jina’s constant malaise. OS
Sigourney Weaver, The Good House
In the last few years, Sigourney Weaver has been giving great performances in not-so-great films: she made last year’s disappointing My Salinger Year, and she shines again in The Good House as an alcoholic in denial. It’s a shame the films aren’t nearly as good as she is, but it’s always a pleasure to get to watch her do thoughtful, complex work. Weaver stars as Hildy, a middle-aged divorcee in small-town Massachusetts who lives alone with her two dogs, financially supports her two grown children and divorced gay husband, and drinks — too much — to cope.
Throughout the film, Hildy breaks the fourth wall, delivering monologues about her life and the people around her into the lens; Weaver is so charismatic that you want to believe the nonsense you know Hildy is selling. She’s particularly good at showing us a woman who is barely holding things together, but is intent on keeping up appearances, no matter how many cracks are starting to filter through. On the phone with her children, her voice is warm and conciliatory while she rolls her eyes and tries to rein in her frustration. With her old flame Frank (a sweet Kevin Kline), she’s boldly flirtatious one minute and a little bashful the next. Wherever she is though, she’s the kind of person whose presence is felt as soon as she enters the room, and her volatile emotional extremes reveal that things aren’t as peachy as she’d like to think. Even when the screenplay swings for melodramatic silliness, Weaver grounds Hildy in reality, keeping you completely with her on her emotional journey, tears and all. AH
Odessa Young, Mothering Sunday
Ever since 2015’s The Daughter and Looking for Grace, Australian actress Odessa Young has been on our radar as one of the most talented emerging actresses. Her big breakout was in 2020’s Shirley, where her mix of youthful naivety and worldly sensuality made for a compelling watch. In some ways, her character in Mothering Sunday is a bit of a retread, and not nearly as complex, but in a film with five different timelines, Young keeps it all together and makes us care for this young woman.
Mothering Sunday is the story of two love affairs in the life of Jane Fairchild (Young) and how they shaped her into a writer. Like in Shirley, Young brings warmth and spirit to the part of a woman who pursues romantic passion more than once, despite the heartache, and is somehow years ahead of her first partner (Josh O’Connor) in maturity. Much of the film is about watching Jane watch the people and places around her, observing the world she will write about, and Young always convinces you this is a thinking, feeling young woman whose thoughts you want to hear. She also effortlessly handles the idealism of her younger self and the more world-wearied cynicism of the later timeline, a bit more worn down by life, but no less willing to give it her all. AH
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