While the United Kingdom has finally joined the rest of Europe in first-class dining — just look at all the mouth-watering dishes Steve Coogan puts away in “The Trip” — the old joke was that airplane food was the national cuisine of England. And it’s that world of tinned vegetables and pork pies that made a foodie out of chef and author Nigel Slater, whose memoir is the basis for “Toast.”
Watching the film, unfortunately, is like going to a restaurant where they fill you up with tasty appetizers and delicious bread but then kick you out before the main course is served; it looks great and features some terrific performances — and there’s never a bad time to hear the hits of Dusty Springfield — but by the time something resembling a plot gets going, the movie’s over.
In the 1960s, young Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) reads cookbooks under his covers at night, and oohs and aahs over the idea of Spaghetti Bolognese and other exotic dishes that his gourmet-challenged Mum (Victoria Hamilton) will never, ever make. She fears fresh produce and store-made pies, choosing instead to boil veggies in the can until they’re limp and tasteless. When all else fails, she makes a great slice of toast.
After she dies, Nigel’s father (Ken Stott) gets carried away by trashy cleaning lady Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), who soon proves she knows her way around both the kitchen and the bedroom. Over Nigel’s objections, the still-married Mrs. Potter joins the family and they all move far out of town to avoid any scandal.
As Nigel becomes an adolescent (where he’s now played by Freddie Highmore, making very good use of his tall-and-gawky phase), he learns to cook in an attempt to edge Mrs. Potter out of the picture, but she’s not so easily replaced.
“Toast” does a lot right, from capturing the grim grays of a 1960s British grocery store to portraying young Nigel’s crush on the family gardener (Matthew McNulty) with the grace and good humor that a movie would normally devote to a heterosexual boy’s infatuation with his pretty schoolteacher. And once the people in the movie start eating good food, it’s all gorgeous, from Mrs. Potter’s sage-stuffed turkey to the competing stepmother and son’s lemon meringue pies.
If only “Toast” didn’t meander so much — it seems like the film is going to be about the culinary competition between Nigel and Mrs. Potter, but that really never goes anywhere, and Nigel himself doesn’t emerge much as a character outside of his love for cooking and for boys, so the movie never works as a coming-of-age tale either.
If you’re a fan of food movies, this one’s nowhere near classics like “Babette’s Feast” on the movie menu, but “Toast” is a tasty enough diversion for fans of Slater’s writing or Bonham Carter’s skill at wearing unflattering wigs.