Nigel Slater has come to the celebrity chef biopic early with Toast, following close on the heels of Julia Child (Julie & Julia), who has nearly 50 years on him in terms of age, and a vastly greater influence on culinary culture. For all that, Slater is a respected chef, TV personality and food writer whose memoirs of life and British culinary culture in the 1970s are often humorous and saturated with a bitter-sweet nostalgia.
Toast does not enter into the realm of Slater’s professional success, but deals primarily with his childhood in lower-middle-class Britain and the culinary abominations that often passed for food. The players in the story are his father (Ken Scott) and his mother (Victoria Hamilton), an utterly inept cook who is able to destroy canned food and whose backup cuisine at any time of day is the title of the film. Slater clearly ate a lot of toast, and equally clearly, loved it and the woman who made it for him. Slater is played by Oscar Kennedy as a child and by Freddie Highmore as an adolescent, both workmanlike performances, but the real star of the show, and the only reason that the film is worth watching, is the performance of Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs Potter, Slater’s stepmother.
Toast is a sweetly sentimental memory of the gloriously bad old days of canned baked beans, canned spaghetti Bolognese and, of course, buttered toast. It is also a thinly veiled story of a young boy’s discovery that he is gay, which is not surprising given the awfulness of the female characters in the story.
And here again we get back to Bonham Carter’s Mrs Potter, frumpy beyond belief and utterly relishing it. She is a furiously capable home manager and talented cook who has absolutely no time for Slater’s mother fixation and need to command his father’s attention.
Directed by: S.J. Clarkson
Starring: Freddie Highmore (Nigel Slater), Victoria Hamilton (Mum), Colin Prockter (Percy Salt), Ken Stott (Dad), Oscar Kennedy (Young Nigel Slater), Matthew McNulty (Josh), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Potter)
Running time: 96 minutes
Taiwan release: Today
There is the germ of an excellent story here, but Toast never really works out whether it wants to be about food, about childhood, about growing up gay in 1970s Britain, or indeed anything else. It wants to be all of these, but the screenplay by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, fails to capture the rapture of self-discovery in the same way. This may well have much to do with the personality of Slater himself, who in his current TV shows is wonderfully personable and considerate of his audience, but never seems to give much of himself away.
The trouble with Toast is just that. Slater is perfectly adept at casting his eye over the culinary and social landscape, but is far from willing to engage in any expeditions into his own psyche.
For the foodie, Toast offers even less of an insight into a popular chef than did Julie & Julia, which at least provided some perspective on the influences that created Julia Child as a seminal chef of the 1960s. Slater, for all his reputation, is just one of many professional chefs who has carved out a niche on the networks, and as a media personality he is far from the most interesting of them. So why should we care that he loved his mother, struggled for years to win the love of an uncaring father, and ended up in the kitchens of London, which were just then in the throes of a culinary revolution that had British chefs battling the French for Michelin stars.
Hence the almost inevitable hijacking of the movie by Bonham Carter, who does so much with the thin pickings offered her that although clearly playing the villain of the story (the film ends with a definitive declaration that Slater never saw her again after he left home for London), manages the improbably and slightly disturbing feat of being the least benign but also the most sympathetic character in the film.