In preparation for my trip to London, I’ve been loading up on British TV, film, and music. Normally, I intake more British pop culture than American, but I’ve recently been doing it on purpose. The other day, one movie that I devoured on Netflix was Toast, a fictional film based on the early life of famed British food writer, Nigel Slater, and his book of the same name. Since it is an adaption, it’s more fiction sprinkled with bits of fact, and while some people may take issue with this, I like to quote Doctor Who and assert that “We’re all stories in the end.” If it’s a good one, no matter if it’s fact or fiction, it’s worth taking a look at.
The opening scene feels like it’s right out of the sixties, and it also makes me really happy that I’ve been born into the culinary world of the modern age. A young Nigel walks around a grocery store stocked with condensed milk, dry dessert mixes, and candy jars filled with taffy. The grocery items make me cringe a bit, and Nigel clearly feels no differently as he pleads for fresh produce and colorful vegetables. The response he receives though is confusion and a meal of warm toast with butter after his mother burns the canned food she is boiling.
This is a boy who moans over cookbooks like they’re issues of Playboy and painstakingly tries to introduce his family to the exotic spaghetti Bolgnese, but his family is at a complete loss of how to deal with his passion. Though I didn’t quite grow up in a household with such poor cooks, I definitely can relate to Nigel as my household is filled with people who are content with Chef Boyardee and Sonic, which clashes a bit with my snobby self. While these scenes are great for setting the stage, the rest of the film, with its humor and family life, is what cements it as undeniably British.
His father is the keystone in creating this British vibe, and as unlikable as he is, I think the characterization of Mr. Slater highlights a lot of what went on during these turbulent times. He is pretty much the embodiment of the British stiff upper lip, and although this usually applies to women, I can just picture him on his wedding night thinking ‘lie back and think of England.’ His disgust at seeing a naked baby on the beach, inability to connect with his son, and fear that Nigel may be different scream of stuffiness and the strict mindset that I associate with people born between the 30s and 50s. There is a clash between father and son, and while it is lamentable, it is probably one of the most accurate parts of this film.
The only glue that holds these two men together is Nigel’s mother, and after her illnesses get worse, it all goes downhill. It is obvious that Nigel’s mother is his idol and in a poignant scene where he dances with one of her dresses, it is clear that the young Nigel is not coping. However, while Mrs. Slater’s sickness is dealt with in a touching way in relation to her son, I was left wanting something from the way it impacts her husband. While it is touched upon a little bit, I feel like Mr. Slater’s relationship with his wife is really glossed over and I never understand his true feelings for her. It might be love, it might be respect, it might be dependence, but I’ll never know.
Another central figure is Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Potter. Usually, I love Carter and the odd roles she takes on, but Joan Potter is one that I don’t understand at all. Her hatred of Nigel is baffling, and while he is no angel when she first intrudes on their lives, I never quite understand what she is doing or why she is doing it. Nigel’s home soon becomes a battleground between himself and Mrs. Potter, all culminating in a fight over lemon meringue pie. She becomes a typical, one-note Disney villain, and I have a hard time buying a lot of it. In fact, when I was reading up on this movie later, many people who knew her real-life counterpart criticize the vilification of Mrs. Potter, an accusation which Slater has yet to deny.
However, next to this strained family life is the second important issue of discovering food. Nigel, even at nine, realizes that food can bring people together. His offering of a pork pie and desire to bond with a new gardener over it is an action that defines ‘homey food.’ These are not the refined pot roasts or the complex savory pies that are served in restaurants today for upwards of twenty dollars, it’s just simple food made with love. He may crave refined cuisine, but he still thinks of the toast his mom makes him fondly. It’s sweet, a little cheesy, and completely true.
The biggest part of the movie that I took issue with was the comedy. The comedic parts don’t even fall flat because they come from such a low place to begin with. I didn’t even realize that this film was supposed to be a comedy until I discovered that it was marketed as such. I am usually very gung-ho about British comedy. Graham Norton? I think he’s hilarious. Doctor Who? I’m always cracking up. Sherlock? A show I frequently laugh out loud at. However, Toast doesn’t even compare to any of these shows. I am hard pressed to think of more than one or two funny lines in the film, and I am still scratching my head over how this is even remotely considered a comedy.
While there are both high and low points in Toast, there is one shining star that I wish had more screen time, Nigel’s childhood friend, Warrel. This young man completely steals the show and I hope he pursues a career in acting. He is often the voice of reason, and he is always a joy to see on the screen. Warrel is basically the embodiment that everything my dorky self who toted around Brady Bunch CDs and a had crush on the Fonz wanted in a friend growing up. He’s honest, nonjudgmental, and incredibly wise. My top three quotes from Warrel are these:
1. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
2. “Being normal is overrated. Maybe you’ll grow up to be interesting.”
3. “It takes some time, bonding.”
Overall, Toast is a film that goes down easy, but probably isn’t one you’ll be thinking about long after it is over. It reminds me a lot of the real thing: nice and warm, but I still need something more to really make it exciting. It stumbles a bit with characterization, and some of the plot left me wanting, but I wouldn’t call it bad. If you’re looking for something breezy, but not especially fulfilling, then this might be a good choice, though if you never get around to watching it, I don’t think your life will be any worse off.