September 15, 2023

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Wicked Little Letters,” “Anatomy Of A Fall,” & “All The Light We Cannot See”


WICKED LITTLE LETTERS (no distrib):  In The Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley played the same character at different ages, which prevented them from sharing the screen.  That’s remedied in the fairly irresistible Wicked Little Letters, an English small-town comedy in the classic (if exceptionally foul-mouthed) mode.  Inspired by a true incident, it tells the story of Rose Gooding (Buckley), a single mother newly arrived from Ireland in the 1920s who’s rather flamboyant by the standards of the town.  Her free-spirited ways both attract and scandalize her next-door neighbor Edith Swan (Colman), a spinster who lives with her overbearing father (Timothy Spall) and cowed mother (Gemma Jones).  When a torrent of filthy, insulting letters start arriving at the Swan house, Edith’s father demands a police investigation, and Edith suggests that Rose may be the culprit.  While the local constabulary is content enough with that theory to place Rose under arrest for criminal libel, pioneering female officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) surreptitiously launches her own investigation, employing several women from the neighborhood as her troops.  While it’s not particularly difficult to guess the solution of the mystery, screenwriter Jonny Sweet creates funny, vivid portraits of the protagonists, and provides a context for the letters that gives the situation bite and poignancy.  Colman and Buckley are as much of a delight together as fans would hope, and director Thea Sharrock gets marvelous performances as well from the ensemble that surrounds them, staging the twists in plot and tone with nimbleness and lucidity.  Wicked Little Letters is infectious, fast-paced fun.

ANATOMY OF A FALL (Neon – Oct. 13):  This year’s winner of the Cannes Palme D’Or is a courtroom mystery that’s really an inquiry into the nature of truth and narrative.  The “fall” of the title is a fatal one for Samuel (Samuel Theis), out the window of the Alpine home he shares with his novelist wife Sandra (Sandra Huller), and their legally blind son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner).  Did he fall?  Did he jump?  Or was he pushed?  The forensic evidence is ambiguous, and Sandra is charged with Samuel’s murder.  The script by director Justine Triet and Arthur Harari plunges deeply into the trial, where every piece of testimony is subject to interpretation, causing an observer’s theory of the case to sway in one direction to another and back again.  Sandra, who creates stories for a living, may be a grieving widow or a calculating murderer, and the viewpoint of her son, unable to see the events he’s describing not just because of his vision but due to his lack of full comprehension of adult complexities, becomes pivotal.  Anatomy Of A Fall feels like an unusual Cannes winner, as Triet’s direction isn’t particularly showy, and while the film grapples with big themes, it does so in an understated way.  (The French Samuel and German Sandra speak to each other mostly in English, and the potential for language to mislead is a recurring motif.)  In look and feel it resembles a procedural more than an auteurist showcase.  Huller is perfectly unreadable in the lead, and the other actors are sharply cool in tone.  Anatomy Of a Fall asks us to judge judging itself, our ability to understand others based on knowledge that may be incomplete, misinterpreted or manipulated.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE (Netflix – Nov. 2):  The festival featured the first 2 hours of what will be a 4-hour limited series on Netflix, based by screenwriter Steven Knight on Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-Prize winning, massively best-selling novel.  As written by Knight and directed by Shawn Levy (both of them are also responsible for the back 2 hours), All the Light is a compelling but familiar compendium of World War II drama tropes.  The main action takes place in 1944 France, where a trio of protagonists try to find or elude one another.  The blind Marie-Laure (Aria Maria Loberti) broadcasts coded information via shortwave radio from the Resistance to Allied bombers, while hoping for her absent father (Mark Ruffalo) or uncle (Hugh Laurie) to appear.  Werner (Louis Hofmann), a very reluctant German soldier and shortwave genius, has had a crush on Marie-Laure’s radio voice and longs to protect her.  Meanwhile, the dastardly Nazi von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger) is on her trail for his own somewhat bizarre reasons, viciously killing anyone who gets in his way.  There’s an elemental appeal to All the Light, with its very bad villains pitched against its very pure of heart heroes, and Levy, while no stylist, knows how to draw out the tension.  Netflix has supplied a solid budget, and there are satisfying contributions from cinematographer Tobias A. Schliesser and production designer Simon Elliott.  However, based on its first half, this is a project where all the evil Nazis seem to be doing Christoph Waltz imitations, and the heroine is angelic enough to sprout wings, while our Good German spends his time constantly menaced by the less-good variety.  Perhaps its back half will redeem it, but so far All the Light feels dramatically on the dim side.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."