Canadian films at TIFF branching out with international stars and locales

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TORONTO - A stately romance about Queen Victoria, the story of a married magazine editor who falls in love while vacationing in Cairo and a light-hearted tale of a New Delhi housekeeper are among this year's crop of Canuck pictures at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Not exactly your typical Canadian fare, eh?
"I think there's been this desire and urge on the part of Canadian filmmakers to not be perceived as working strictly within these national boundaries - to not be perceived as kind of working in the ghetto," festival director Piers Handling told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.
"I think it's a very healthy sign, that they're moving up, attracting international talent, playing within that pool of people, and I still think making films that are extremely Canadian in terms of their subject matter. "
"At the end of the day, it's a Canadian sensibility that always comes into play here."
Certainly, this year's festival - which begins Thursday and runs until Sept. 19 - boasts a roster of high-profile Canadian works.
"Chloe" - making its world premiere after already being feted by the New York Times as director Atom Egoyan's most accessible work yet - takes place in Toronto but is a foreign-financed film with a cast of marquee Hollywood stars.
The film focuses on an affluent couple who come undone when a doctor played by Julianne Moore suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) of infidelity and hires a prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce him.
"The Young Victoria" finds Jean-Marc Vallee covering very different terrain than he did in his 2005 hit "C.R.A.Z.Y." Here, he directs British actress Emily Blunt as the titular queen in her turbulent early years struggling to take control of the British Empire while engaging in a romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).
Reginald Harkema's "Leslie, My Name is Evil," meanwhile, centres on the trial of Charles Manson and his acolytes through the eyes of a young chemist whose call to jury duty ultimately provides a gateway to a totally foreign world of sex and drugs.
Director Ruba Nadda also found herself venturing beyond Canadian borders for "Cairo Time," a gorgeous romantic drama about a married journalist (Patricia Clarkson) who falls for a new companion (Alexander Siddig) she meets while visiting the Egyptian capital.
"Cooking With Stella" similarly focuses on Canadians living abroad. Directed by Dilip Mehta from a script he co-wrote with his sister, Deepa, the comedy is about a New Delhi housekeeper at a Canadian diplomatic residence in India who deploys various under-the-kitchen-table schemes to complement her modest salary.
And "Defendor" is unmistakably set in the gritty environs of downtown Hamilton but casts American Woody Harrelson as a comics-obsessed man who reinvents himself as a vigilante. Also starring Kat Dennings and Canadian Sandra Oh, the Peter Stebbings-directed film puts a decidedly different spin on the superhero genre.
These films are among a class of Canuck offerings that upend the stereotypes of what Canadian films can be, says the festival's Canadian programmer, Steve Gravestock.
"A lot of stereotypes about Canadian films are that they're always based on some level on what's actually happened in the past," Gravestock said. "Obviously, we're known internationally for films that often are closer to the arthouse vein, you know, that are sort of serious dramas."
This year, organizers made the decision to open the fest with a non-Canadian movie - "Creation," a British film about English naturalist Charles Darwin starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.
Festival organizers acknowledge that the choice has been controversial.
"We've had a lot of spirited conversations about this, let me put it that way," festival co-director Cameron Bailey said. "There are some people who feel that we should always open with a Canadian film - I'm not really of that opinion. "
"I mean it's a huge part of what we do to support Canadian cinema, so if there's a film that we think is the right film to open with ... we'll always do that, but I think we wanted to have some other options this year."
Not all in the film community are crowing about the distinctly international flavour of this year's Canadian lineup.
Carl Bessai, the Vancouver-based filmmaker who will be at the fest with his new movie "Cole" - set in the tiny town of Lytton, B.C. - is outspoken in his belief that Canadian filmmakers have a responsibility to ground their stories here.
"I don't want to die on this cross, but I do feel that if Canadian filmmakers don't make movies where Canada is on display in the film, even if it's subtle .... the audiences here will never see it," he said.
"Because I can tell you right now American and British directors aren't going to do it for you, directors from France aren't going to do it. They're just not. I mean, they've got their own country and their own ideas and origins and their own places. It's our job, really."
With files from Canadian Press reporter Andrea Baillie in Toronto.

Organizations: Canadian Press, New York Times, British Empire Prince Albert

Geographic location: TORONTO, New Delhi, Cairo Hollywood India Hamilton Lytton Canada France

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