Monday 3 February 2014

Film Review: 12 Years A Slave

Very few films leave an entire theatre in stunned silence when the credits start to roll. No giggling or gossiping, but complete and utter silence. 

12 Years A Slave however, did exactly that. The powerful, pulls-no-punches period drama from director Steve McQueen, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, is a striking and magnificent awards season powerhouse.

12 Years A Slave is the tale of Solomon Northup, an free African-American man in 19th Century America. He, unlike many African-Americans, has not been bound to slavery and has a family and a wife of his own.

After being duped and kidnapped however, all that he holds dear is taken away from him and Solomon is sold into slavery. Beaten and abused, Solomon is forced to adopt his new identity of 'Platt' by Paul Giamatti's violent slave driver character. Sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a plantation owner, Solomon clings to the hope that, one day, his true identity as a free man can be proven. Sold onto Michael Fassbender's unhinged plantation owner, Solomon meets the abused slave Patesy (Lupita Nyong'o) and eventually Bass, a carpenter and slave-sympathiser (Brad Pitt).

The first thing that struck me about 12 Years A Slave is the honesty and respect that director Steve McQueen handles the subject matter with. McQueen ensures that slavery is in no way sugar-coated, never shying away from showing the brutal, whip-cracking nature of the plantation owners and their deluded 'natural state' ideology - this is most evident in the characterisation of Michael Fassbender's character Edwin Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson).

The acting in this film is superb, with Chiwetel Ejiofor delivering a towering performance of immense purpose and grace. I've never really noticed the guy before, outside of a few performances in things like Serenity, 2012 and American Gangster. In this film, Ejiofor cannot be ignored. His acting is fantastic, most notably when McQueen takes a moment to concentrate the camera on his wordless expressions. Sometimes, they say a lot more than any carefully crafted line of dialogue could have. His characters immense pain, anguish and despair hits you, without him uttering a word.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong'o was great as the fragile and terrified Patesy. One scene wherein she begs Solomon to end her life was amazingly acted, not to mention well-scripted. In terms of dialogue, there are some really memorable lines in here, as well as some songs sung by the slaves in defiance.

Cumberbatch is great as Ford, a slave owner with a sense of decency (does that make him worse than Epps?) and so is Pitt, who isn't in things as much as I expected.

My stand-out performance however was that of Michael Fassbender as Epps. The guy is simply off-the-rails, unhinged, vicious, sadistic and pathetic. He blew me away, and didn't hold anything back by immersing himself in the role. Every scene he was in left me flinching and shaking (maybe not literally) at his sheer despicable and deluded state.

Something that really struck me about 12 Years A Slave was McQueen's uncompromising direction. While some directors shy away from framing shots that will make audiences squirm and shift in their seats, McQueen hammers home the brutality of some scenes by letting the camera linger for a long, long time.

In one scene, Solomon is hanging from a tree with a noose around his neck and only his toes touching the ground; rather than cut away, McQueen holds the camera steady and stays with the one shot for a good minute. No dialogue, no cuts, no music. Just the gurgling of Solomon's asphyxiated throat and the squishing of his toes pressing into the mud. It makes for very uncomfortable and heart-wrenching viewing. And yet, somehow, you can't seem to take your eyes off the screen.

The films run-time could possibly have been cut back, with one or two narrative elements here and there no lending too much extra to the overall coherence of the plot. Nevertheless, the film has a satisfying arc, with the end of the middle third packing the greatest emotional punch.

More than anything however, 12 Years A Slave makes you think. And I don't just mean think about slavery and how shameful it is. I mean it makes you really think about us, humans as a species, and the cruelty and brutality we have inflicted, and still do inflict, upon one another. It's a tale of immense morality, ethics and human emotional self-destruction. Some films wash over audiences, the story and the characters going in one ear and falling out of the other. Not so with 12 Years A Slave. This film will sit with you for hours, days, even weeks afterwards, leaving you dumbstruck like a double decker bus. The emotional power of Ejiofor's performance is just the tip of the iceberg, as every element wonderfully comes together to slam into audiences at full pelt.

The Verdict: 9/10

12 Years A Slave is the kind of film that everyone has to see - it isn't pleasant, comfortable viewing, but it is nothing short of essential. It'll leave you absolutely blown away through its raw performances, harrowing themes and confronting direction. Comparable to Schindler's List in term's importance, 12 Years A Slave is a landmark film. It may not be perfect, but this is the hot favourite for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and rightly so.


  1. Nice review, and you ain't lying about the stunned silence. This is definitely not an easy one to sit through, but for all the right reasons. A truly great film, with some truly great performances. :)

    1. Would be very surprised to see this film miss on Best Picture and Best Actor - Best Supporting Actor looks set to go to Leto but Fassbender deserves it also. Thanks for commenting Chris :)



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