The British food critic/chef and TV personality Nigel Slater’s memoir is the subject of “Toast,”an oddly under-motivated biographical account of a boys’ love of his culinarily hapless mother and his war with the woman who would replace her in his family after her death.
Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) grew up middle class in the Britain of the 1960s and 70s — Dad (Ken Stott) drove off to work in his Rover 3.5, and came home to an only child son he didn’t understand. And sickly stay-at-home mum (Victoria) was so hapless in the kitchen she couldn’t be bothered to open the cans of whatever canned meal she was cooking, a helplessness that the movie doesn’t deign to explain.
Nigel lets both parents know his contempt for this. He wants normal food and a “normal” life, but his mate at school says that “normal’s” over-rated. He expects Nigel to be “interesting” instead.
So he is. As his mother gets sicker and his father struggles to hide that from the boy, the kid rebels. He’s been learning a little bit about cooking, and he knows the difference between the swill mom cooks and dad devours (sometimes reluctantly) and good food. Mom has only mastered one dish — the “Toast” of the title.
When Nigel, on his own, whips up a spaghetti dinner and his family rejects it as “foreign” and “strange,” the lad seems to sense the international joke that British cooking had always been.
When mom dies, a new woman enters their lives — Mrs. Potter. She’s given a plump, faintly sinister touch by Helena Bonham Carter. She’s cooking and cleaning for the Slater men, but Nigel senses she’s ready to bail out on her husband and become the new Mrs. Slater. He judges her and his father harshly, and it doesn’t matter that she’s a fabulous cook. It’s war.
The fact that the film doesn’t make clear whether Nigel is fighting for his mom’s memory out of guilt or if he’s just a snob who finds Mrs. Potter gauche makes the film’s first two thirds a drag. There are hints that the kid knows he likes boys more than girls, but nothing that explains why he suddenly is hell-bent on guarding the father he’s told he hates him more than once. What drove him?
But the film picks up markedly for its final third, with Freddie Highmore playing the more self-assured Nigel as he defiantly ignores his classmates’ hissing “pooftah” at him, eschews sports and goes for Home Economics classes in 1970s Britain. This Nigel has a plan for winning dad back — by out cooking Mrs. Potter. This Nigel discovers his first crush — a handsome lad he meets at a restaurant where he takes a part time job.
This Nigel lives up to the promise of being “Interesting,” and is only getting more so when the film ends.
Look for the “real” Nigel Slater in a cameo, as a chef sizing the kid up to see if he’s up to a job the boy wants.
Aside from that, I dare say the book is far more interesting than the96 minute movie they wrangled from it.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, worthy of a PG
Cast: Oscar Kennedy, Helena Bonham Carter, Freddie Highmore, Victoria Hamilton, Ken Stott
Credits: directed by , based on Nigel Slater’s memoir. A BBC Films release
:Running time: 1:36