Audiences at this year's Toronto International Film Festival looking for escapism may feel they've turned on the news instead, with a clutch of movies based on real-life events that are continuing to play out even as the festival approaches.
Among the more than 70 galas and special presentations announced on Tuesday was the festival's opening night film, The Fifth Estate, a thriller about the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and his battles with governments, the press, and some of his now-estranged colleagues. Directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Australian-born activist, the film is based in part on a book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who served as a Wikileaks spokesman before quitting the organization in 2010 after a falling-out with Assange.
Last year's festival included a TV movie about the teenaged Assange, but the new film, which will have its world premiere at TIFF, comes as the U.S. government is again vexed by leaks about its intelligence programs.
"This is one of the most timely stories right now," said Cameron Bailey, the festival's artistic director. "I can't think of anybody who doesn't have all kinds of information about themselves online. Governments have access to that, in some cases the companies that we put our trust in have access to that. Assange is somebody who began asking questions, and began looking for transparency in terms of how that information is disseminated, and I think that's something we all need to think about."
In the film's trailer, one character (played by Stanley Tucci) says of Assange, "He's not a journalist, he's a threat to national security," echoing recent attacks on both the former intelligence worker Edward Snowden and The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who reported the recent leaks about the National Security Agency's operations.
Another newsy film at TIFF, which will celebrate its 38th edition Sept. 5 to 15: An ode to Nelson Mandela, whose diminishing health has been front-page news this month. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on Mandela's autobiography, stars Idris Elba as the anti-apartheid activist who eventually became the first black president of South Africa. Naomie Harris plays Winnie Mandela.
Other films dealing with issues that continue to resonate include Omar, a Cannes award-winner about a Palestinian man forced to become an Israeli informant, and Blue is the Warmest Color, the French film about a lesbian love affair that won the Cannes Palme d'Or in May only days after that country legalized same-sex marriage.
And the festival will make news about itself, on the wings of celebrity angels. While no stars are yet confirmed to walk the red carpets, those who have films coming include Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson, Mike Myers, Zac Efron, Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Tim Robbins, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner.
TIFF lineup highlights
Canadian films (and non-Canadian films made by Canadians)
Gala world premieres for Canadian films include actor-writer-director Don McKellar's The Grand Seduction, starring Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch and Liane Balaban; Jeremiah Chechik's The Right Kind of Wrong; and Jonathan Sobol's The Art of the Steal.
Hometown hero Atom Egoyan, meanwhile, goes Hollywood again for Devil's Knot, about a notorious miscarriage of justice that wrongly sent three teenagers from West Memphis, Ark., to prison for 18 years. And two celebrated Quebec filmmakers make the jump to (indie) Hollywood: Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de Flore) directs Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, a low-budget drama about a Texas man with HIV in 1985 who battles the medical establishment for permission to use non-traditional treatments; and Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) directs Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard in Prisoners, a thriller about an abduction.
Industry veterans, newbie directors
Numerous actors and writers trying to cross over to feature directing for the first time will bring the results to TIFF, including Arrested Development's Jason Bateman (Bad Words) and Mike Myers, who is hemming Supermensch, a feature documentary about his friend Shep Gordon, a veteran Hollywood music and film agent. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) directs himself and Scarlett Johansson in the comedy Don Jon. And Matthew Weiner, the creator of TV's Mad Men, will make his feature directorial debut with the world premiere of You Are Here, starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler.
One of the most impressively pedigreed films at this TIFF is August: Osage County, an epic family drama adapted from a 2007 Broadway play that snagged the Pulitzer Prize and five Tony Awards. The all-star cast includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard and Benedict Cumberbatch, with TV veteran John Wells directing. 12 Years a Slave, by director Steve McQueen, tells the true story of a free black man sold into slavery in 1841. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and, again, Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Fifth Estate (dir. Bill Condon), Benedict Cumberbatch
The Art of the Steal (dir. Jonathan Sobol), Jay Baruchel, Katheryn Winnick, Kurt Russell
August: Osage County (dir. John Wells), Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard
Cold Eyes (dir. CHO Ui-seok and KIM Byung-seo), Hyo-ju Han
The Grand Seduction (dir. Don McKellar), Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Liane Balaban
Kill Your Darlings (dir. John Krokidas), Michael C. Hall, Elizabeth Olsen, Daniel Radcliffe
The Love Punch (dir. Joel Hopkins), Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson
The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra), Irrfan Khan
The Railway Man (dir. Jonathan Teplitzky), Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Colin Firth
The Right Kind of Wrong (dir. Jeremiah Chechik), Ryan Kwanten, Will Sasso, Catherine O'Hara
Rush (dir. Ron Howard), Chris Hemsworth, Olivia Wilde
Shuddh Desi Romance (dir. Maneesh Sharma)
Supermensch The Legend of Shep Gordon (dir. Mike Myers)