'Creation' to open Toronto film festival

Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly star in Darwin drama

TORONTO -- The Toronto International Film Festival has given its plum opening-night slot to the Charles Darwin biopic "Creation," a British pic from director Jon Amiel that stars husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.

The choice caused a stir during the festival's opening news conference Tuesday because the event traditionally opens with a Canadian film to showcase local talent.

Festival co-director Cameron Bailey said "Creation" best fills the demands of the opening-night slot because it promises to spur debate about faith and reason as it entertains.

"By telling a story on many levels, weaving scenes from past and present, this depiction of Darwin promises to deeply move audiences by drawing them into the conflicted mind of a man who presented a concept that changed the world," Bailey said of the drama in which Bettany portrays the 19th century British naturalist who conceived the theory of evolution opposite his wife, Emma (Connelly).

The film, from Recorded Picture Co. ("The Last Emperor," "Sexy Beast") and BBC Films, was penned by John Collee ("Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") and includes Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch in its cast.

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The festival, set for Sept. 10-19, also announced gala world-premiere slots at Roy Thomson Hall for "Get Low," Aaron Schneider's frontier drama that stars Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, and the romantic comedy "The Invention of Lying," from Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, which Warner Bros. is releasing domestically Sept. 25.

Also unspooling as a star-driven gala is a North American premiere for "Max McManus," a Norway/Denmark/Germany co-production from Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, and a Canadian premiere for Lee Daniels' 1980s drama "Precious," a Sundance award winner that Lionsgate is releasing in November.

Toronto also has booked a number of Special Presentation titles, including world premieres for Scott Hicks' "The Boys Are Back," an upcoming Miramax release; Irish director Jordan Scott's "Cracks"; French director Bruno Dumont's "Hadewijch"; Tim Blake Nelson's "Leaves of Grass"; and Bruce Beresford's "Mao's Last Dancer."

Also receiving world bows in the high-profile sidebar are Raoul Peck's "Moloch Tropical"; Neil Jordan's "Ondine," which stars Colin Farrell as a fisherman transformed when he catches a mermaidlike creature (Alicja Bachleda) in his nets; "Solitary Man," from U.S. directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien and starring Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito and Mary Louise Parker; Nicolas Winding Refn's "Valhalla Rising," a Danish/British co-production; and Niki Caro's "The Vintner's Luck," which is set in 19th century France.

North American premieres in the Special Presentation sidebar include Jane Campion's "Bright Star," a love story between the 19th century poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish); Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!" which stars Matt Damon as a corporate executive-turned-whistleblower and will be released by Warner Bros. on Oct. 9; and "London River," a portrait of a Muslim man and Christian woman caught up in the July 2005 London bombings, from director Rachid Bouchareb.

Other North American bows include South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's "Mother"; the Egyptian film "Scheherazade Tell Me a Story," from Yousry Nasrallah; and Johnnie To's "Vengeance," a Hong Kong/France co-production that stars French pop icon Johnny Hallyday.

Bailey said the current financing contraction for indie film likely will be felt more in the fest's 2010 lineup as this year's crop of indie offerings were in production before the recession began to bite late last year.

Still, this festival has been affected by the tough times, with cuts to its operating budget, ticket pricing and a new cost-sharing arrangement with Canadian film distributors.

Screenings at the Elgin Theatre, for example, will see ticket prices cut from $38.50 to $19.87 at about half of the screenings. Weekends and evening shows will remain at the premium $38.50 price.

The festival greatly needs the added revenue to close a $49 million funding gap for Bell Lightbox, its year-round headquarters under construction at a cost of $196 million.

The festival this year will give donors of at least $250 the ability to order tickets before the general public, based on the size of their gift. Donors of more than $5,000 jump to the head of the line.

American donors to the Toronto festival are eligible for a U.S. tax credit, courtesy of a New York-based TIFF foundation.

Bailey said giving Canadian and American donors preferential treatment will not detract from the event's reputation as the people's festival. He said ordinary cinemagoers have "lots of access and choices" when buying tickets.

The festival will make additional lineup announcements in the coming weeks.