Since winning her well deserved Oscar for "The Queen," Helen Mirren has hardly jumped at every prestige picture that came her way.  In fact, she'd really only had two potential contenders in the pipeline: "State of Play," the less said about that one the better, and "The Last Station" which resulted in her fourth Academy Award nomination this past March.  Now, after segueing to the little seen "Love Ranch" for director and husband Taylor Hackford, Mirren has three new films either being released or ready for distribution this fall.  Two of them screened at the Toronto Film Festival today.  What was the verdict?  Mixed to be kind.

In "The Debt," Mirren joins Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson as former Mossad agents who are haunted by a mission they became heroes for in 1967.  As they deal with the consequences of their actions 30 years later, Sam Worthington (standing in for Hinds), Marton Csokas (standing in for Wilkinson) and Jessica Chastain (a younger Mirren) bring the story of the team's attempts to capture a notorious Nazi war criminal hiding in East Berlin (a familiar Jesper Christensen) to life.  Produced and co-written by Matthew Vaughn, it's hands down John Madden's finest directing gig since "Shakespeare in Love."  And, it also features great cinematography from Vaughn regular Ben Davis and stellar turns from Chastain (who will be in Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life"), Worthington (best dramatic work to date) and the incomparable Mirren.  In fact, for most of the film you have a feel all three are major players in the Oscar race for supporting actor and actress.  That is…until the third act.

Now, this writer doesn't want to give anything away, but the choices Vaughn and co-screenwriters Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan make towards the end of the film are jaw-droppingly bad.  Terms like "nuke the fridge" and "jump the shark" are often used in genre or event movies, but rarely in a thriller of this caliber.  But for reasons this pundit can't understand -- nor could anyone else in my screening -- the picture just goes the complete wrong way and it does so badly.  And, what could have been a great, smart and moving thriller becomes a picture that leaves a nasty taste in your mouth.  Well, at least until you remember the fine performances before those moments.  The strange thing is the picture could be easily rectified by cutting before this sequence at not one, but two natural end points.  If Miramax/Disney or Madden are smart, they will seriously reconsider before the film's December debut (hint, hint).

Much more debatable is "Brighton Rock," the directorial debut of  "28 Weeks Later" screenwriter Rowan Joffe.  Loosely based on the Graham Greene novel, the film centers on Pinky ("Control's" Sam Riley), a young criminal in the British seaside town of Brighton who is vying for control of the area with older mobster Colleoni (a one scene cameo by Andy Serkis), but crazily murdering a number of other hustlers along the way.  In the middle of his self-induced madness he meets an incredibly naive young teen Rose (up and comer Andrea Riseborough) who falls madly in love with him.  Unfortunately, she's also one of the few who discover Pinky's deadly deeds and he schemes to find a way to make sure she doesn't rat on him.  Complicating matters is Ida, Rose's boss, played by Mirren in dyed reddish brown hair and a sexy wardrobe she has no problem working (As Ida notes to her pal Phil played by Jon Hurt at one point, "Oh, I know men.").  Ida is out to do whatever she can to save Rose from this evil and seemingly worthless Pinky.  The plot turns become increasingly dangerous before leading towards a climactic finale where good finally wins over evil (or so we think).  

Joffe's main change to the story is to place it in 1960's in the midst of youth riots that swept the British seaside.  Sadly, it provides any real context to the proceedings.  At the same time, instead of giving the material a grittier '60s thriller feel in the new era, he sticks to the film-noir trappings of the original novel and John Boulting's 1947 film (which starred a young Richard Attenborough).  It may have been yet another mistake for some in the theater, but not for all.  What starts off as a tonal misfire, slowly, but slowly calms down into an interesting artistic exercise once Mirren's character appears more prominently in the picture's second half.  Unlike Riley and Riseborough, Mirren and Hurt are the only two actors in the picture who don't push their characters into farcical over the top creations.  At times, Mirren is single-handedly saving the picture by just bringing a more nuanced performance out of the actors she's appearing on screen against.  What doesn't help matters is the bombastic score by the relatively unknown Martin Phipps.  Much of the audience's discomfort in the first half is clearly the result of Phipps' work and if there had been time, another composer should have been brought in to calm things down.  However, Joffe still proves he has talent as a filmmaker.  His vision might not be for everyone, but there is something different about his approach in "Rock" that slowly caught on. Well, at least with this pundit.

As for Mirren, she'll have to hope Julie Taymor's "The Tempest" gets a better reception at the New York Film Festival later this month than it did following it's Venice Film Festival debut last week.

Look for more coverage from the Toronto Film Festival on Awards Campaign all this week

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