Film Review: Toast

Utterly charming, witty and visually splendid nostalgic trip through the ’60s by way of the memoir penned by celebrated Brit food writer and cook Nigel Slater and seasoned with some Dusty Springfield pop hits. A gem of a feature directorial debut

Filmmaker S.J. Clarkson, who cut her teeth (and maybe trained her palate) in television, delivers a winner with Toast, a sparkling coming-of-age comedy that follows real-life chef Nigel Slater’s early years in provincial Wolverhampton and the nearby countryside to grunt work in a celebrated restaurant kitchen as his passion for food and his sexual identity take root and sprout.

Clarkson is blessed with not only this delicious material but a wonderful cast, script and rich production design (right down to canned foods and utensils) that bring alive a historic decade still disengaging from the kitschy, conservative, repressive ’50s. Such a menu will also help the film—mimicking restaurant success—generate the kind of reviews and word of mouth that attract upscale patronage. Just as important (whether restaurant or film experience), Toast entertains rather than patronizes.

Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) is first met as the ten-year-old only child of a deeply middle-class dad (Ken Stott) and mum (Victoria Hamilton), who live simply but comfortably in provincial Wolverhampton. The parents don’t care a whit about food: Dad will wolf down anything and Mum, dealing with an illness, can prepare nothing. Mush out of a tin, placed directly into boiling water, is about as good as it gets. Fortunately, Nigel can count on the toast Mum often serves: dependably crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside—the only port in an unending storm of inedible offerings.

The bland food dovetails appropriately with Nigel’s dreary life at both home and school, where he is forced to drink the milk he loathes and cannot digest. His only pleasures are his foraging of cookbooks for dishes unknown and visits to the grocer where he cruises the shelves of wondrous delights never to darken the Slater family doorstep. Just as significant to his self-education are Nigel’s friendly encounters with the family’s handsome, James Dean-like gardener Josh (Matthew McNulty), upon whom he develops a major crush and learns a bit about how gardens relate to the food we eat.

Dad, usually not quick on the uptake, senses something amiss and quickly replaces Josh. The folks also thwart Nigel’s attempts to expand their culinary habits and skills. Far worse is Mum’s growing illness, which proves fatal.

Nigel, like his father, is devastated and the son’s misery deepens when Dad starts dating the trashy Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), the sassy family cleaning lady who is apparently married and lives in rundown council housing. But Dad fancies her and she sees opportunity. To Nigel’s dismay, Mrs. Potter soon becomes Mrs. Slater and the three move into a country house Dad has bought.

Now in his upper teens, Nigel (Freddie Highmore, star of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland) grows restless. Having forsaken shop classes at his new school, he signs up as the only boy in Domestic Science and excels. Unfortunately, he has a rival at home vying for Dad’s affection, as the new Mrs. Slater is a gifted cook. She bakes a killer lemon meringue pie whose recipe she refuses to share with her stepson. Nigel outwits her and, always building his culinary skills, steals the recipe.

Pursuing his passion, he lands a job in the kitchen of a nearby pub and grows both professionally and sexually, thanks to the liberated owner’s son Stuart (Ben Aldridge), an appealing representative of the late-’60s counterculture ethos that infused and intoxicated the younger generation. Another major event in Nigel’s life puts him on both a literal and symbolic doorstep that will prove most providential.

Clarkson’s production is rich. Locations include vintage seaside vacation spots, musty ballrooms and simple provincial homes. Performances from both principal and supporting cast are outstanding. The muted palette enhances the time frame of early/mid-’60s. Camera POVs are certainly inventive (from inside ovens, refrigerators, etc.), and the soundtrack’s Dusty Springfield hits induce nostalgia.