Toronto Irish Film Festival bauldly takes on the Oscars

By Liam Lacey

One very Irish theme that pops out in the selection of films at this year's Toronto Irish Film Festival is a great love of the underdog.

And who, frankly, but an underdog would even program a festival opposite the Oscars on Sunday night?

Now in its eighth year, TIRFF taps into a large, if low-profile, potential audience of a quarter million Torontonians of Irish descent, bringing new films from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Mad Mary's Seana Kerslake

Mad Mary's Seana Kerslake

The most high-profile film in this year's selection is the Oscar-nominated animated film, The Breadwinner, an Irish, Canadian and Luxembourg production based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis's young-adult novel about an 11-year-old Afghanistan girl, Parvana, who disguises herself as a boy to support her family. Directed by Nora Twomey (The Secret of Kells) a Jolie-produced film opened in Toronto in November and is just wrapping its theatrical run. It’s the third Irish-Canadian co-production in a row — after Brooklyn and Room — in 2016, to get the Oscar nod.

For those interested in contemporary Ireland, and a young Irish actress to rival this year's Best Actress nominee, Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), try to catch the festival's opening film, A Date for Mad Mary, which won the best film at the 2017 Irish film and television awards. 

First-time filmmaker Darren Thornton’s very charming adaptation of a Yasmine Akram stage-play stars Seána Kerslake, Kerslake’s nuanced performance as the "mad" (as in outrageous) Mary, a wild girl just out of a stretch in prison for assaulting another girl in a nightclub. She's now desperate to find a date for a best friend's wedding, but is impeded by her bad reputation.

Set in the the port town of Drogheda, north of Dublin, the film contrasts Mary's hard-drinking belligerent style, and plans for her maid-of-honour speech for her best mate, Charlene (Charleigh Bailey). (“She’d always have your back and not just in a fight, like”). What becomes painfully clear is that Charlene has moved on. Meanwhile, Mary doggedly pursues her mission to accompany her to the wedding and prove she, too, can fit into a world of stifling normalcy.

The family-friendly period film, Zoowhich is co-presented with the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, is, very loosely, based on a real event. In the spring of 1941, Belfast was attacked by German Luftwaffe bombers which killed more than 900 people and damaged more than half the homes in the city.

Numerous animals in the Belfast zoo were deliberately killed, to avoid them running amok, but one elephant was secretly kept alive by a woman who hid it in her back yard. In this improved fictional version, 

Game of Thrones' star, Art Parkinson, plays the boy who assembles his friends to get Buster the elephant out of the zoo, with the help of his an eccentric older woman (Downton Abbey's Penelope Wilton). Toby Jones plays the seemingly mean, but ultimately good-hearted, zookeeper.

And for more recent history, there’s Belfast’s fallen soccer hero in the documentary, George Best: All By HimselfDaniel Gordon's film follows the career of George Best, who, as a skinny Belfast fifteen-year-old, was first discovered by an English soccer scout, who reported back to Manchester United, "I think I've found a genius."

After a blazing once-in-a-generation career with the Red Devils, Best was essentially washed-up by thirty, and dead by sixty, the victim of compulsive alcoholism. Compelling anecdotes from friends and ex-partners mix regret and affection, though, as a cautionary tale of the perils of celebrity, the story is unconvincing: Even the unknown and untalented kill themselves with drink. On the other hand, as explained by Best's first girlfriend, Jackie Glass (now a head-shaved Buddhist nun who goes by the name of Ani Rinchen), there's no correlation between adulation and happiness.

Toronto Irish FIlm Festival Schedule. For ticket information and more details go to 

Friday, March 2, 7 p.m. 

A Date for Mad Mary 

Saturday, March 3, 2 p.m

The Breadwinner

Saturday March 3, 5 p.m. Short films The Climb, Homecoming, Throwline, The Date, The Widow's Last.

Saturday, March 3, 8 p.mMaze. A drama inspired by the escape of 38 Irish Republican Army prisoners from Belfast's jail, starring Peaky Blinders' Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. 

March 4, 1:30 p.m. Zoo, 

March 4, 1:30 p.m. George Best: All By Himself.

March 4, 8 p.m. In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America. Liam Neeson narrates this documentary about the Irish Nationalist Party leader who was co-recipient, with David Trimble, of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in brokering in peace Northern Ireland after thirty years of sectarian violence. The film, which focuses on the American influence in the process, includes interviews with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as British Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair as well as, of course, Bono.