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Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Idris Elba lead British invasion of Toronto film festival

The 42nd annual Toronto international film festival has a distinctly British flavour, with a number of UK films included in what is fast becoming one of the major events in the festival calendar.

Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are some of the homegrown names whose films are featured at the festival, which is regarded in the industry as a launchpad for Oscar hopefuls. They are are joined by an international cast of actors and directors that includes Emma Stone, Guillermo del Toro, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney.

There’s a recurring historical theme to this year’s British crop. Atonement director Joe Wright returns to the subject matter of the second world war with Darkest Hour, an account of Winston Churchill’s first days as British prime minister during the conflict. The film, which stars Gary Oldman as Churchill, is the second biopic of the wartime leader to be released this year, following Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill.

After tackling our current monarch in 2006’s The Queen, director Stephen Frears turns his attention to a previous incumbent to the throne with Victoria & Abdul, about the friendship between Queen Victoria, played by Judi Dench, and her Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). It’s the second time Dench has starred as Victoria, following from the 1997 film Mrs Brown. Elsewhere, actor Andy Serkis presents his directorial debut Breathe, which tells the story of Robin Cavendish, who was given months to live after contracting polio in Kenya in 1958 and went on to become a prominent disability rights activist. The film has also been selected as the opening gala at this year’s London film festival.

Other British films appearing at the festival include Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which recalls the relationship between young British actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and Hollywood bombshell Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) during the latter’s autumn years, and The Wife, an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s publishing-scene novel starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. Another adaptation heading to Toronto is Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience. Based on the Naomi Alderman novel of the same name, the film stars Rachel Weisz as the lesbian daughter of a rabbi who returns to her Orthodox Jewish community in London. It’s the second Leilo-directed film at this year’s festival, with the Chilean film-maker’s transgender drama A Fantastic Woman also being screened. Rounding off the literary theme are Richard Eyre’s film version of Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act, starring Emma Thompson, and Mary Shelley, a film about about the Frankenstein author’s relationship with Percy Shelley, with Elle Fanning in the title role.

British actors are also well-represented at the festival. Idris Elba and Kate Winslet fight for their lives in the snowbound Utah wilderness in survival thriller The Mountain Between Us, Christian Bale plays an army captain tasked with escorting a dying Native American chief back to his home in period western Hostiles, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role of Thomas Edison in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, and Carey Mulligan stars in Mudbound, Dee Rees’s depiction of life in racially divided 1940s Mississippi, which was a hit at this year’s Sundance festival.

Elsewhere, some Hollywood heavyweights offer up major new works at Toronto. Darren Aronofsky shares his psychological horror Mother!, which stars Jennifer Lawrence, while Alexander Payne’s offbeat comedy Downsizing, featuring Matt Damon as a man who decides to shrink himself, also appears in the lineup, as does Guillermo del Toro’s latest gothic fantasy film The Shape of Water. Meanwhile, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie both continue their run of work behind the camera. Clooney directs Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin in Suburbicon, a crime drama written by the Coen Brothers, while Jolie helms an adaptation of First They Killed My Father, Cambodian author Loung Ung’s account of life under the Khmer Rouge.

There’s a sporting theme to a trio of films at the festival. Battle of the Sexes tells the story of the much-hyped tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the lead roles, while I, Tonya sees Margot Robbie take to the ice as disgraced US figure skater Tonya Harding and second world war drama The Catcher Was a Spy stars Paul Rudd as a baseball player who becomes a spy for the US government. Two other American offerings confront dark events from the country’s recent history: the David Gordon Green-directed Stronger stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man adjusting to life after losing his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing, while Kings, which stars Daniel Craig and Halle Berry, concerns two people brought together by the 1992 LA Riots.

Significant inclusions away from the US and the UK include two films well-received at Cannes: Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute and Ruben Ostlund’s Palme D’Or-winning The Square, while veteran German director Wim Wenders adds to his already lengthy filmography with romantic thriller Submergence, which stars Alicia Vikander, James McAvoy and Charlotte Rampling. Finally, home-nation interests are represented by Long Time Running, a documentary about Canadian alt-rockers The Tragically Hip.

The Toronto international film festival runs from 7 to 17 September. In previous years the festival has acted as a bellwether for Oscar contention, with its people’s choice award regularly going to future Academy Award best picture nominees, including Silver Linings Playbook, 12 Years A Slave and La La Land.