Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt
Genre: Drama/ Biography
In 1840s America, a free black man from upstate New York called Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is tricked, abducted and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He then embarks on a 12 year journey experiencing unimaginable cruelty and evil, but also acts of kindness. Though he is initially sold to a kind owner by the name of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), after an argument with Tibeats (Paul Dano), an aggressive and hateful overseer, Ford is forced to sell Northup on to Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Epps is a violent man who believes slaves to be his property and that God allows him to do whatever he wants with his property. It is then that Northup must find all his courage and intelligence to stay alive and retain his dignity and never lose hope.
In Hunger and Shame Steve McQueen proved to have an unflinching style of filmmaking that may certainly at times make you feel uncomfortable, but these two films were presented with such raw honesty that they never exploited or trivialised their dark subject matter and produced two unforgettable cinematic experiences. Despite the bigger budget and bigger cast list, thankfully in 12 Years a Slave McQueen has not let his style be diluted by studio bosses and money obsessed executives. For me 12 Years a Slave is another unforgettable depiction of the sheer evil that humans are capable of, but again done in an honest and never exploitative or trivial way.
Of course so much has been said about 12 Years a Slave already that I expect pretty much all of what I say here may well have been said before, but this is one of those films whose universal appraisal is thoroughly deserved. 12 Years a Slave is an expertly made and unforgettable film about a subject very rarely touched upon and is made with passion, honesty and integrity.
To show people being continuously tortured and upping the gore and suffering is very easy to do for even the most unskilled film maker, but McQueen is way too much a film maker of integrity to fall into that trap.
12 Years A Slave is a film that depicts pure brutality, but with the intelligence too. A vast majority of the torture is psychological, and all the more uncomfortable to watch for it. When physical torture is shown, such as Solomon left to hang from a tree or him being forced to whip one of his fellow slaves, it is done in one single, unbearable take making us want to look away. The sound design itself is incredible, making us flinch at every crack of the whip and the often diagetic soundtrack of the slave’s chorus providing a soulful backdrop. McQueen is never one for using overpowering non-diagetic scores, and despite Hans Zimmer being on scoring duties, his score is a little conventional but perfectly subtle and understated; featuring predominantly in the narrative’s more intimate and personal scenes. McQueen throughout the narrative preferring to use the contradicting sounds of birds singing, the grass blowing in the wind or just unbearable silence as the backdrop to the suffering we see before us.
Not only is McQueen’s direction unflinching and often unbearable to watch, Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is also superb and contributes so much to the experience. McQueen often captures some truly Malick-esque beautiful shots of the Louisiana countryside, and the physical sweat and often exhaustion that these characters feel in the extreme heat can be physically seen throughout. For me, 12 Years A Slave captures perfectly the juxtaposition between the horrifying actions human beings are capable of set against the beauty of nature just as well as Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. I am sure the fact the music used from Hans Zimmer’s exceptional score to that film is used in the trailer for 12 Years A Slave is just sheer coincidence.
As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a committed and heartfelt performance that deserves to clean up during awards season. Appearing in pretty much every scene, and often having very little dialogue, Ejiofor conveys the unbearable and often unimaginable suffering that Solomon Northup experiences with a physically committed performance that is genuinely devastating to watch. Ejiofor manages to encapsulate so many emotions through facial expression and body language alone, making this one of the best and most committed performances of recent years.
Though this is Solomon Northup’s story, he encounters such an array of characters and they are all extremely well written characters of depth, both good and evil. Though they sometimes mean almost sacrificing our protagonist to role of observer, it makes 12 Years A Slave such an even richer and unforgettable experience. Regular McQueen collaborator Fassbender gives an exceptionally committed performance as the film’s main antagonist, Edwin Epps. Both the great writing and Fassbender’s fierce performance mean Epps is not just an evil caricature; he uses the bible to justify how he treats his ‘property’ and is a genuinely fascinating character. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford is an essentially good hearted character, but because of the society he lives in, he seems a tortured and helpless character due to the evil ideology around him that he is helpless to stop and so has to play a reluctant part in.
Of course the principle antagonist throughout the entire narrative is slavery and in no way is the emotion reserved solely for the protagonist. Lupita Nyong’o gives the film even greater heart in the devastating role as the young slave and Epp’s ‘favourite’ Patsy. The context of Northup having freedom and then it being completely taken away in an instant is devastating and powerful in equal measure, but he was just one and 12 Years A Slave reminds us of those that spent their entire life knowing no different. Those other slaves that Solomon encounters never even experienced freedom, and for me it is tackling this horrible subject in the way it does that makes 12 Years A Slave an absolutely unforgettable masterpiece in filmmaking.
This is also a film in my view where repeat viewings are essential. It is hard to be completely prepared to take in the huge array of emotions and images first time round. Repeat viewings will not necessarily diminish the shock, but this is a film that gets even more powerful and engaging when seen again. As it has taken till 10th January to be released in the UK, then it is most certainly already a contender for film of the year 2014.
Made with tremendous integrity and acted with total commitment; 12 Years A Slave is an unforgettable and at times devastating film, but an overall rewarding watch and one of the year’s best.