What will be Oscar verdict on TIFF opener ‘The Judge’ and stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall?

The 39th edition of the Toronto filmfest opened Thursday with a splashy title, Warners’ “The Judge,” headlined by Robert Downey Jr. in his first dramatic role since “The Soloist” four years ago. His wife Susan produced the picture, which showcases her husband as Hank Palmer Jr., a Chicago legal eagle forced to return to his Indiana hometown to defend his father (Oscar champ Robert Duvall), a judge for forty plus years, on a murder charge. 

As festival director Cameron Bailey noted in his welcoming remarks, “they don’t make movies like this anymore: dramas, movies where you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys by looking at their suits.” As per the new festival policy, this was a world premiere as will be all films that screen in the first four days of the 11-day movie marathon. 

Helmer David Dobkins, best-known for comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” said he was delighted to return to the festival where he launched his first film, “Clay Pigeons,” 15 years ago. He welcomed his cast to the stage of Roy Thomson Hall, where the film unspooled before a crowd of 2,200 plus.

It was well-received, with a prolonged standing ovation that heightened as Duvall took his turn in the spotlight.

Now 83, he reaped the first and last of his six Oscar nominations for playing lawyers (“The Godfather,” 1972; “A Civil Action,” 1998) and could well cap his career with a return to that race for his work here as the title character. Forced to deal with both his children and his own mortality after the sudden death of his wife, the role is reminiscent of Henry Fonda‘s in “On Golden Pond,” which won that veteran actor his only Oscar.

As with that picture, this one sets up a conflict between a taciturn parent and a demanding child. The scenes between the two Roberts crackle and are the highlight of the film that may be more of a crowd pleaser than a critical success when it opens on Oct. 10. 

Among the strands of story woven in the two plus hours are a rekindled love affair between Hank and his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga), a reconcilation with his older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who he injured in a car wreck 25 years ago, as well as the centerpiece trial, which pits him against a wily prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton). 

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