'12 Years a Slave' sets Toronto Film Fest ablaze with buzz

A trailer for "12 Years a Slave."

If Hollywood remains the symbolic dream factory, more than ever the Toronto International Film Festival qualifies as the dream factory's biggest buzz saw.

The movies generating the loudest, most persistent awards-season buzz at this most public of major international festivals, now in its 38th year, often go on to conquer the year-end lists, and the Academy Awards of the new year.

It worked for "No Country For Old Men." It worked for "Slumdog Millionaire." It worked for "The Hurt Locker" and "The Artist" and last year's Toronto favorite and eventual Oscar winner, "Argo."

On Friday, day two of the 11-day festival (which operates on a $39 million annual budget), the tweets screeched the news: The race was already over, nearly six months before Oscar night on March 2. Following its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival a week earlier, "12 Years a Slave," director Steve McQueen's exceptional, brutally eloquent account of the free-born Northerner Solomon Northup's 1841 abduction into plantation enslavement, destroyed the public premiere audience here in Toronto.

By the time McQueen's film was shown in a second press-and-industry screening Saturday the word wasn't merely out, it was cemented. This was the film to beat. By Sunday morning, McQueen (an Englishman who divides his time between London and Amsterdam) and his remarkable leading actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, looked a little gobsmacked by the response to the picture, shot in Louisiana on a relatively modest $20 million budget.

Criminally few slave narratives have found their way in front of a camera; if nothing else, "12 Years a Slave" points this out simply by existing, let alone by being as powerful as it is. Screenwriter John Ridley borrows liberally and judiciously from Northup's memoir, published in 1854. McQueen's work exists on an entirely different plane than the facetious, audience-baiting sadism of the recent "Django Unchained." Much of "12 Years a Slave" is difficult to stomach. Yet McQueen, a visual artist who works in several mediums, is neither clinical nor salacious in his depiction of what Northup survived, and so many others did not.

"The initial response has been so amazing," the London-based Ejiofor said over coffee Sunday. "But I do want people to look at it with their own eyes. The thing about hype and buzz is that it affects the experience, somehow. I want people to ignore the buzz."

And good luck with that. The release of "12 Years a Slave" has been moved up to mid-October, a couple of weeks after general audiences will get a look at director Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," the festival's other big wow of the opening weekend.

Already an enormous success at the Venice film festival, "Gravity" is "Marooned," but exciting. Stripped bare of the usual expositional blah-blah and relatively light-handed when it comes to backstory, it stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts on a routine space station mission spun, literally, into crisis mode by a series of unfortunate events.

It's a small picture from one angle: 90 minutes in length, two characters on screen, and for a good stretch of the film, only one. But the visual impact of "Gravity" is anything but small. Shot in the most persuasively immersive 3D since "Avatar," Cuaron's film (cowritten by him and his son, Jonas) makes getting creamed by space debris look like the coolest thing in the world. Or above it. More on this film and on "12 Years a Slave" when we get closer to the release dates.

Other early festival titles have included director Ron Howard's "Rush," a disappointing biopic of Formula One rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), written by Peter Morgan, veteran of the two-headed dialectical biopic ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon"). Considerably better, "The Invisible Woman" finds Ralph Fiennes in front of the camera as Charles Dickens opposite Felicity Jones as his much younger paramour, Ellen Ternan. Fiennes also directs, in his sophomore feature effort (he made the undervalued "Coriolanus"). "An Invisible Woman" is a Sony Pictures Classics release, rolling out at the end of the year, in time for Oscar consideration. Should Oscar consider considering it.

At the annual Sony Classics press event, which included dinner for 100 or so, Fiennes told me about his one and only trip to Chicago (to hear Leonard Cohen in concert) and talked about the Shakespeare he'd like to crack next on stage ("Macbeth"). Even here, though, at a dinner showcasing work of a distributor having nothing to do with "12 Years a Slave," people kept asking about "12 Years a Slave." You could hardly hear the waiters over the metaphoric buzz saws.

Monday brings, among others, "August: Osage County." The Toronto festival continues through Sept. 15.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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