Film Review: '12 Years A Slave'
Opened: 10 January 2014
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt
Director: Steve McQueen
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas
With movie awards season well and truly upon us it is hard to have missed the buzz around 12 Years a Slave, the latest movie from director/producer Steve McQueen, who before now was best known for exposing Michael Fassbender’s undercarriage to the world, in his psychological study of sex addiction Shame. Looking at the director’s previous work it is clear to see what drew him to this project, the situation is highly pressurised and the characters possess an equal intensity which they need in order to survive – which goes for those on both sides of the overseer’s whip. What is most striking and rewarding about the telling of the story is an unwillingness to paint the white masters of the slaves as two dimensional villains – each is given depth and genuine motivation. While this firstly makes for more compelling viewing, more importantly, it is impossible to write the masters (and their wives and the overseers) off as abstract evil – they are real people who knowingly visited this suffering on other real people.
With the exception of Dallas Buyers Club and Gravity this year’s aforementioned awards nominations are filled with tales of the worst of mankind; Con artists pulling off the American Hustle, evil nuns stealing Philomena’s baby, deranged and deluded Somali pirates on Captain Philips’ ship, kiddie killers and crazed vigilantes taking Prisoners and of course The Wolf of Wall Street! Although these are all good movies and they tell valuable stories, 12 Years a Slave is a film that had to be made and must been seen. It does not have the glamour or the laughs that some of these other narratives entail and for keeping this dark, humourless truth it has achieved a much higher station.
From the opening of the film (and indeed from its title) we know that the central character Solomon Northup, played dynamically by Chiwetel Ejiofor, will be stripped of his status as a freeman and be sold into slavery. From here there is never a moment’s of comfort as we quickly learn he has a wife and two daughters who we know he will be separated from because his enslavement is inevitable. Unlike many slaves depicted in film Solomon was a very well educated American man, bringing the true horror of slavery a little closer to modern audiences, who can usually watch with the certainty that such things never happen to civilised individuals.
The theme of trauma throughout the movie is overwhelming, with script and direction never allowing a single moment of happiness to go unpunished. Graphic depictions of beatings and dehumanising abuse make for some difficult viewing but it is the psychological elements which hit Solomon the hardest; unlike many of the other slaves he has a family and an established life which his captors attempt to erase by forcing a new identity on him.
Technically brilliant, the editing looks to have been a painstaking process but possibly made a little easier by a beautifully shot reel. The director’s ability to investigate character through the events of the film shows incredible talent and we can definitely see how his earlier work, such as Hunger and Shame, have developed his ideas about filmmaking.
Performances across the board are flawless and so we could be left wondering why 12 Years a Slave has not garnered any awards in these categories so far. Quite simply this is a true story and so most of the roles are not showcases. As much as the characters are given genuine depth they are all still very limited by their circumstances. Ejiofor and Fassbender both give impressive performances but for me it is Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s embittered and ruthlessly cruel wife, Mistress Epps, who puts in the most memorable performance.
There is one thing though. We need to talk about Brad! Pitt.
As one of the producers of the film, and openly credited by the director as being key in getting it off the ground, Brad Pitt’s turn as enlightened Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass is poorly placed in the film. Arriving late in the story he has very little chance to build his character before becoming involved in the main plot. This massive Hollywood presence so late on (similar to the stunt casting of De Niro in American Hustle) is out of place and pre-empts the character’s role as deus ex machina. By this point however the audience are relieved just to see a friendly face following the gruelling sequences and detestable individuals they have had to stomach. Whether Bass or any of the others sympathetic to Solomon’s plight are able to successfully help him is for the film (or indeed the book) to tell you.
If you have not seen this film yet, do.
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