Toronto’s image varies in films

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and each of us sees the world around us in our own unique way. Let’s look at three Canadian filmmakers offering their own ‘takes’ on Toronto in all its hope and despair.

Director Denis Villeneuve followed up his Oscar-nominated Incendies (2010) with Prisoners (2013) and now Enemy (opening March 14), the latter two both starring Jake Gyllenhaal. On March 9, Enemy is up for 10 Canadian Screen Awards, including best picture. It tells the eerie story of an alienated history professor who spots his exact look alike in a movie.

Setting helps establish the mood of a story. Although the source novel, The Double by José Saramago, takes place in an anonymous metropolis, Enemy is clearly set in a Toronto we have never seen before on screen: a hazy, ominous city of high rise concrete and glass. The only nature we see is in recurring images of exotic spiders, an unsettling vision for those of us who imagine a place of trees and ravines, rivers, the beach and raccoons.

Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from Enemy.
Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from Enemy.

The film is a mind-trip around a desolate city you may not even recognize. Gyllenhaal’s brooding character teaches at the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus, with its brutalist architecture. He lives in St. James Town, which is exactly what Villeneuve was “seeing in his head.”

The director described Toronto as “the perfect city” for his very personal film, “a beautiful place to shoot,” and “a very cinematic city.”

The “F” Word (“f” is for “friend”), from director Michael Dowse (Goon, 2011) was also part of Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, and garnered five nominations for Canadian Screen Awards. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan star in this funny and touching look at romantic complications. The film is a love letter to Toronto, showing a diverse city of neighbourhood cafés and rep cinemas, of beaches and boardwalks, of lawn bowling at Kew Beach and long walks by the lake. Radcliffe sheds his Harry Potter image (and his clothes) for a sweet skinny dipping scene and the warm glow of a bonfire beneath the Scarborough Bluffs.

Another romantic view of Toronto is Take This Waltz (2011) from director Sarah Polley. She looks at her hometown through a rose-coloured lens, showing the city as the ideal dance partner for Michelle Williams’ romantic longings. Polley has said, “I wanted to make the most romantic sort of version of Toronto I could possibly think of.” Her idyllic romp through a city of romantic possibilities includes Williams riding in a rickshaw from the West End to Kew Beach in time for a beautiful sunrise.

Toronto will never have the iconic status in cinema that cities like Paris or New York enjoy. Our city has been the Clark Kent of movie locations, usually disguised as somewhere else (Detroit in the new Robocop, for example). It’s great to see depictions of Toronto on screen … even the dark images of Enemy. You may never look at Toronto the same way again.

How do you see Toronto?

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven …”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost

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