If one were to rate the film Toast by culinary standards, it would score much the same as the subject himself—not Michelin-starred, but entertaining, straightforward and delicious.
Toast is a BBC Films biopic of one of Britain’s best-loved food writers and TV cooks, Nigel Slater, and is based on his 2004 autobiography, Toast: the Story of a Boy’s Hunger.
From the first moment, Toast is a delight to the senses. The opening credits are cleverly printed on boxes and tins lining the shelves of a 1960s grocery store while classic music of the era fills the background. In one lovely shot after another, we follow young Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) through the shop and its wonders, the camera closing in on his face as he sees a heavenly light shine over the cheese counter.
“When you’re deprived of something, it just makes you all the more hungry for it,” Nigel narrates matter-of-factly.
And poor Nigel is deprived. We watch as his well-intentioned mum (Victoria Hamilton) plops unopened tins into a pot of boiling water and still manages to burn the dinner. When all else fails, she makes them all tea and toast. (They eat a lot of toast.) Meanwhile, Nigel’s father (Ken Stott), is irritable and impatient with his son, sure that something is “wrong” with the boy.
But food and family are only two of the three themes in Toast—the other is sex. Deprivation is merely the eggy batter that binds them together.
Nigel’s first twinges of homosexuality are revealed in his crush on their gardener, Josh (Matthew McNulty). Josh is the first character in the film to feel a bit fairy-tale-ish, swinging Nigel about in his arms and shouting gleefully about the wonders of nature.
Nigel’s mum tragically dies, but his grieving is curtailed by the entrance of Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), a seemingly innocent house cleaner. Nigel takes an immediate dislike to her, sure she is set out to seduce his father. It certainly appears to be the case, as every vigorous task Mrs. Potter takes to hand—from vacuuming to polishing—has an overt sexual innuendo attached. Soon, she takes over their home and Mr. Slater’s heart. From the moment she presents them with her first massive apple pie—“just something I knocked up”—her presence in their lives seems irreversible.
If the first half of the film is somewhat bleak, the second part is anything but. From the moment Mrs. Potter appears—large, colorful bum first—the story changes in vivid proportions. Food takes on a whole new meaning to Nigel and Mr. Slater, no longer disappointing, but bewitching in the hands of Mrs. Potter.
An all-out battle ensues between the feisty woman and antagonistic boy, which is both comical and tragic, putting the characters’ wounded insecurities on display and leaving viewers with a sinking feeling that neither can win.
The film as a whole is ultimately about Nigel, though, and the situations in his life that draw him out of personal constraints and help him take risks to find happiness. Even in the midst of all his family chaos, budding adolescence and curiosity about food, his story is the classic journey of finding oneself.
Toast is the introductory role for 11-year-old Oscar Kennedy, and he shines for a first-timer. Veteran child actor Freddie Highmore is equally up to the task of portraying the teenage version of Nigel Slater, and even bears a striking resemblance to the man.
The star, quite obviously, is Helena Bonham Carter. A gifted character actress time and again, she does more than give Mrs. Potter shape—she adds her own cheeky cherry on top.
Written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), Toast is tender and heart-breaking. It has a few contrived moments and several lines better suited to greeting cards than film, but the sentiment remains honest.
Toast’s director, S.J. Clarkson, is solely a TV series director at this stage, bringing his distinctive approach to small-screen favorites such as Life on Mars and Heroes, as well as British standbys like EastEnders. His touch with Toast is lighter, while still packing a punch of entertainment value in character and composition.
Cinematographer Balazs Bolygo (Doctor Who, Lark Rise to Candleford), has also worked mainly in TV. Bolygo’s translated vision for Toast is stunning. Not only is the food filmed to mouth-watering perfection, but the way the camera follows Nigel throughout is right on the money, balancing the restraint of some moments with the carefree exuberance of others.
Toast aired on BBC’s UK Christmas TV lineup last year to a spellbound audience of over 6.2 million viewers, according to The Guardian. Incidentally, the family of the late Mrs. Potter expressed outrage at the way their mother was portrayed. While it’s understandable how the larger-than-life characterization might offend, Mrs. Potter was still surprisingly multidimensional in spite of herself. This is one of Toast’s unexpected charms—all persons in this story quite honestly display the best and worst of themselves, to their triumph or detriment.
If you know of the real Nigel Slater, keep an eye out for his little cameo near the film’s conclusion—it’s worth a chuckle.