We saw Steve McQueen's (not that Steve McQueen's) Shame at the 2011 festival. It was the first of his films I'd seen, and on the strength of that one film, I knew I wanted to see this. McQueen is not one to shy away from challenging subject matter - Shame was about a functional sex addict in New York City - and this year's film, 12 Years A Slave, is no different.
This is true story of a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for (you guessed it) 12 years. It begins when Solomon Northup's wife and two young children leave their New York home for a few weeks. Solomon, a free black man and professional musician, is lured by two men to Washington, D.C. where they promise him good pay to play for a circus. There, Solomon is wined, dined, drugged and, when he awakes, sold into slavery.
The rest of the movie shows Solomon's fight for survival, the occasional shred of dignity, and ultimately, freedom and a return to his family. The people he meets along the way, from plantation owners, white hired help, and other slaves, paint a grim picture of the reality in the slave-era south. Conditions are brutal, and McQueen doesn't turn the camera away, even though you might choose avert your gaze for a moment or two.
The cast is top notch. Smaller supporting roles are filled by Paul Giamatti as a slave trader and Brad Pitt as a Canadian carpenter. Alfre Woodward puts in a nuanced performance as Mistress Shaw, who enjoys life as "slave nobility". Benedict Cumberbatch builds on his recent portfolio (see Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock, and War Horse), playing a plantation owner who, aside from buying, selling and owning people, seems like a decent man. Paul Dano is a guy who must have had a bad childhood and later becomes a plantation manager to take it out on slaves (we just see the latter). The always impressive Michael Fassbender was terrific as a plantation owner who is brutal and despicable, but much more than a simple villain to be despised.
The best, though, came from unknown (to me) actors. Adepero Oduye is incredible in her heartbreaking portrayal of Eliza, a fellow slave on one plantation and object of its owner's desire. Sarah Paulson is wicked as that plantation owner's spurned wife. Anchoring the entire production, in another Oscar worthy performance is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He is magnificent as Solomon Northrup, taking us along for his journey from free man to kidnap victim to his basic fight for survival.
All of this is navigated expertly by McQueen, a director of great intensity. Mr. McQueen is not without a sense of humor, but he is very serious about the art of film making and the results show it.
Okay, I'll gush a little more. This is my 13th trip to TIFF, and this is one of if not the best film I've seen here. I think it's worthy of many Oscar nominations; supporting roles, best actor, score, screenplay, direction and film. I'm probably leaving out things like costume and art direction because I seem to be clueless as to which films win those awards. Go see this film. Bring a tissue. Weepers, bring a box. My imdb rating is a solid 9/10.
Side note: Mr. McQueen and several cast members were on hand for a lengthy Q&A after the film. It was a wonderful Q&A, with good questions and thoughtful and insightful answers. And thanks to Mr. McQueen for insisting on a few more questions after TIFF tried to shut down the session.