While major biopics like ‘Lincoln’ or ‘The Iron Lady’ have proved to be award magnets in recent years, rarely have films of this genre converged at one event as they did at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Three films based on the lives of personalities who have played pivotal roles in shaping our world headlined this year’s TIFF.
The festival opened with ‘The Fifth Estate’, which has Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as its protagonist. TIFF also featured Idris Elba playing the South African anti-apartheid legend in ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’, and Polish master Andrzej Wajda delivered ‘Walesa, Man of Hope’.
What made these biopics different was that each of the portrayed personalities remains alive, and often newsworthy. For the actors essaying these roles, the characters came with their own challenges. In an interview, actor Robert Wieckiewicz said about portraying Lech Walesa, the founder of Poland’s Solidarity movement: “The paradox of the situation was that I couldn’t think of this role as a legend. I had to treat my character as an ordinary person. We have to remember it’s been 30 years since what happened. And today Lech Walesa is a completely different person.”
The Polish actor relied on the wealth of archival material from the 1980s during the tumultuous days of that era that led to the collapse of Communism in Poland and Walesa became a pioneering figure in Eastern Europe.
Of course, there’s another aspect of playing characters like Mandela or Walesa, who are also revered in their own nations. As Wieckiewicz pointed out, “Now that this film is being screened in Venice and Toronto, I’m starting to realise what happened. The fact that I was working with Wajda and playing Lech Walesa. Slowly, it’s starting to get to me. But before and during shooting, I could not think in such categories, because it could have paralysed me.”
As with Wieckiewicz, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Assange had to manage with publicly available material as the secretive Wikileaks founder disliked the concept of the film. Cumberbatch offered his interpretation of Assange as did Wieckiewicz with Walesa, as he explained, “What was important was to look alike physically but also to try and capture his way of being in general, to create a reality between purporting and my own proposition.”
For a person obsessed with divulging secrets, Assange is compulsively mysterious about his own life, adhering to a paraphrased Oscar Wilde quote that he mouths in the movie: “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” This film, based partly on his lieutenant Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s memoir Inside Wikileaks, allows that mask to slip a little.
Cumberbatch’s costar Daniel Bruhl was luckier, having access to Domscheit-Berg, whom he portrays in ‘The Fifth Estate’, just as he did to racing legend Niki Lauda, who he plays in another TIFF premiere, director Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’.
Biopics are a film genre that’s been revitalised, as TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey said, “I think it’s something that’s out there in the filmmaking world. People just find great drama in some of these true life stories.”