Baking Pans for Nigel
Published on September 26th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer2
Running time: 96 mins. Not rated.
Although an undeniably sweet little film, S.J. Clarkson’s adaptation of “Toast,” British foodie Nigel Slater’s delicious and provocative memoir, fails to bring to the big screen the edginess and full-bodied flavor of the book. While possessing many fine features, most notably perfect 1960s period décor and superb performances by a highly talented cast, the film ultimately feels unsatisfying.
“Crusts Removed” would make a fitting alternate title for this review, as so much of what makes Slater’s memoir so delightfully, subversively naughty has been omitted from the film to produce a safe, family-friendly trifle that will inevitably be forgotten. Word has it that the film was a big hit in England. But they like marmite there, too. “What the hell is marmite?” you ask? Exactly.
The film is so deeply disappointing as an adaptation that it’s hard to know where to begin. It could be a textbook case for how not to adapt a book. Even allowing for the alterations, simplifications, subplot elisions and character deletions that are unavoidable in even the most faithful feature film adaptation, the filmmakers have made too many bad choices in this regard, seemingly all of them geared towards making a film that doesn’t offend polite middle-class taste, that doesn’t create any dreaded thought-provoking ambiguity, which a more adventurous, more faithful-to-the-spirit-of-the-book adaptation would have created.
Firstly, the film seems so intent on emphasizing the loneliness of Nigel’s childhood and not muddling up the film with too many characters that it radically depopulates the narrative right from the start. Gone are Nigel’s older brothers and their girlfriends, his incontinent Aunt Fannie, even his Labrador retriever, not to mention all of the various relatives that make appearances here and there in the book. It is precisely the loss of the colorfully crowded, olfactorily rich ambiance of York House, Nigel’s family home in Wolverhampton, that makes his later teenage years at Clayford, an isolated farmhouse in Worcester, the loneliest time of his life. By robbing the narrative of this dramatic contrast, the film ironically misrepresents the very loneliness it sets out to evoke.
Secondly, the film dwells far too much on the early sections of Slater’s memoir, excessively focusing first on his attachment to and mourning of his mother (Victoria Hamilton) and then on his distaste for and culinary artistic rivalry with his stepmother (Helena Bonham Carter). (And the maudlin piano music redundantly accompanying the scenes in which Nigel and/or his father, played by Ken Stott, get teary eyed is unbearable, especially the third or fourth time we hear it. The other music, consisting mostly of Dusty Springfield recordings from the 1960s such as “If You Go Away” and “Little by Little,” is much more effective and interesting.) By focusing so much on Slater’s adolescence and early teenage years, the film runs out of time and ends up completely skipping over his more exciting, debauchery-filled later teenage years and early adulthood, which would have made for great moviemaking and made us truly believe the line spoken to Nigel that ends both the book and the film: “You’ll be fine, you’ll be just fine.”
Thirdly, the film “normalizes” the burgeoning of Slater’s sexuality in a strange way that is only ostensibly progressive. We first get a hint that 11-year-old Nigel, played excellently by newcomer Oscar Kennedy, is gay when he steals a few peeks at the naked backside of Josh the gardener (Matthew McNulty) getting changed in the garden shed. Later we hear Nigel, played as a teenager by Freddie Highmore, getting called a poof by his female classmates for signing up with them for a home economics course. Finally, in one of the film’s last scenes, he and an older boy named Stuart (Ben Aldridge) exchange a brief, tantalizing kiss, thereby finally answering in the affirmative the question–”Is he gay?”–that has lingered throughout the film, albeit as an incidental subplot to the central story about his love of food and cooking. Left out completely, however, are the far more numerous heterosexual romances described in the book. I was particularly saddened to note the absence in the film of Julia, described by Slater has having “piercing violet eyes and dark hair that straggled down over her shoulders,” a girl with whom he “spent the remaining weeks of the summer holidays in a sort of steak-for-sex deal that seemed to suit both us.” (“‘Steak-for-sex deal’?” you ask? You’ll just have to read the book.) In another scene from the massive swath of the book elided by the film, Slater writes of another dalliance, “I had no intention of sleeping with Sally, nor she with me. It just sort of happened.” By leaving this kind of material out completely, the film keeps things all too simple, as if not to trouble the audience with any confusion as to Slater’s sexual orientation.
The film’s oversimplification of so much of Slater’s memoir is my main complaint. His parents, while played wonderfully by Ken Stott and Victoria Hamilton, are robbed of much of their complexity by being reduced to stereotypes of naïve middle-class provincials. In the book, for instance, it is Nigel’s father, not Nigel himself, who gets the family to try spaghetti, and it’s Nigel, not his father, who says that the Parmesan cheese smells like “sick.” Not only does that alteration do a disservice to the father, but it also misses the opportunity to show us the changes in Nigel’s attitudes towards food. The film makes him seem too open minded, too precociously sophisticated, as if he were born with a degree from Le Cordon Bleu, while making his parents seem too unsophisticated, his mother too inept in the kitchen, his father too much of a disagreeable ogre.
It also idealizes Nigel, making him seem like a perfect, mild-mannered little angel rather than a more complex blend of outward neatness and politeness playing façade to more clandestine acts of voyeurism and autoeroticism. Of course, trying to build scenes out of the more risqué or unsettling parts of the book would have interfered with the sweet little image of Nigel the filmmakers were trying to construct. (It certainly would have necessitated an “R” rating or whatever the equivalent is in the UK.) Scenes that were left in were changed to keep that image neat, tidy and clean. For instance, in the book, when Nigel’s teacher makes him drink his milk, he vomits it up all over himself and a shelf full of books. But the film turns the scene into a slapstick comedy cliché, having him projectile vomit the milk all over the teacher’s face, as if to say, “I told you so, Teach!” The awkwardness is thereby neatly deflected away from Nigel to preserve our idealized image of him. Another scene alteration is more interesting, though. In the book, Nigel visits his recently deceased mother’s closet, burying his face in her clothes. He picks out a dress and a pair of her shoes, puts them on and walks around the room in them. The scene doesn’t really “mean” anything, but it’s interesting nonetheless. In the film, however, Nigel sentimentally dances with the dress, as if it’s his mom. Such a sweet little fella, huh? It’s the filmmaking equivalent of sticking a “Hang in there!” poster of a dangling kitty on the wall. Cute and safe.
In short, Slater’s book may just be the ultimate foodie memoir, but if you want the ultimate foodie movie, you’d be better off seeing Adrienne Shelly’s “Waitress,” the Julia Child biopic “Julie & Julia,” or even the Pixar movie “Ratatouille.”