12 Years A Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black man from New York in 1841. He appears to be relatively affluent and well respected, living side-by-side with white people. A skilled player of the violin, Northup accepts an invitation to earn some extra money with a travelling circus. He is then abducted and sold into slavery, at which point he has all of his liberties taken, even being reduced to accepting a name other than his own. As a slave, he becomes knows as ‘Platt’. For 12 years, Northup endures the most horrific conditions and treatment imaginable, traded as ‘property’ by merciless slave owners. This truly remarkable film charts those 12 years, and how.
First of all, let me preface this by pointing out that I have not reviewed a film since September 26th, 2013. Not because I stopped watching movies or having opinions on them, merely that I have just not felt compelled to write. I ‘lost the bug’ somewhat. Well, having been fortunate enough to attend a preview screening of 12 Years A Slave, I can’t shake the urge to get back to my keyboard and share my feelings on it.
No doubt you’ll have seen the posters and heard the hype. “One of the best films ever made”, boasts one poster. Some commentators have compared it favourably to Schindler’s List – high praise indeed. Even as something of a movie-marketing cynic, it’s been hard not to get excited about this film. Yet I also found myself wary of settling down for it, knowing full well that it would present some difficult viewing. Let me tell you now, whatever you’ve read or heard about the movie can not prepare you for the events that occur within it.
There is so much to praise about 12 Years A Slave that it’s difficult to even know where to begin. Given that I have to start somewhere, I’ll go with director Steve McQueen. I’ll confess to not having seen any of his previous directorial work, but of course I am aware of it and the high regard in which he is held. In every single second of this epic, there are flashes of his genius plastered across the screen. His commitment to telling this story in his very distinct way is impressive. There has been a clear decision that this is not a film to be viewed for the sake of entertainment, but that it must be an uncomfortable watch for the audience. How could it be anything else?
With lynching, vicious whipping, rape and gut-wrenching despair on display at every turn, McQueen point-blank refuses to skirt around any of the issues. On so many occasions he pushes his camera in close to the characters, capturing vast swathes of a turbulent emotional landscape without needing to resort to dialogue. Scenes are left to play out for an uncomfortable length of time. There are those that are difficult to watch because they are physically gruesome – it is not possible to view a whip-scarred back without wincing – but it is the scenes that display mental anguish that are the hardest to bear. The prime example is a scene that displays a lynching gone wrong, after which a character is left hanging for hours, desperately treading on the spot to stay conscious. As if that isn’t horrific enough, we get to see many slaves walk past, unable to acknowledge the awful sight because of fear of similar repercussion for themselves. It’s a striking sight and, for me at least, is likely to be the most enduring image of the film.
McQueen also uses music wonderfully well throughout the film. This comes not only in the use of a tremendous Hans Zimmer score, but through songs and hymns sung by the slaves. These occur through their ‘working day’ and at a burial and are, on every occasion, overwhelming. The juxtaposition of the work they are being forced to undertake and the beautiful yet heart-breaking lyrics leaving their mouths is quite a thing to witness.
For fear of turning this review into an essay, I’ll move on from McQueen’s brilliance to that of his cast. It would be foolish not to begin with Ejiofor in the lead role. His is the performance that dominates the film, he appears in almost every single scene which, with a role that demands so much, must have been quite a load to bear. The emotion he summons as he takes Solomon to the very depths of despair is unbelievable and will undoubtedly land him a bucket load of gongs during awards season – quite right too. He carries the whole movie; without a performance of this magnitude the rest of the piece would fall down but he delivers. His is a performance for the ages.
Of the supporting cast, there were two real stand-outs for me, although that may do the rest an injustice, given that there isn’t a bad performance anywhere in the film. First up, Michael Fassbender, who turns in a frightening performance as slave owner Edwin Epps. If we go with Schindler’s List as a direct comparison (and really, it’s an apt one), then Fassbender is to this film what Ralph Fiennes was to that epic. Epps is a man formed from nothing but the purest evil, believing he can do as he chooses with his slaves because they are his property, hiding behind the bible for justification. He is outstanding throughout, but a scene near the end of the film in which one story-arc moves towards its conclusion would have to be classed as his peak here. For an actor widely regarded as one of the very best around, I mean it as no small praise when I proffer that this may go down as a career-defining performance for Fassbender. He’ll surely be another that is lavished with awards nominations in the coming months – I’m struggling to think of a supporting performance as good as this one in the last year.
Also requiring special mention is Lupita Nyong’o, playing a young female slave called Patsey. Epps takes a shine to her and uses her for the most inhumane and degrading purposes imaginable. I was about to write that her story-arc is an emotional rollercoaster, then I realised the problem with that analogy. Rollercoasters tend to have peaks, whereas Patsey’s story doesn’t. It’s just one depressing drop after another that will surely leave you emotionally drained by the time the end credits role. At the risk of repeating myself to the point of boring you, this is a breakthrough performance that will surely demand many awards and nominations.
Other noteworthy performances include Benedict Cumberbatch and a fairly small role for one of my favourite actors, Paul Dano. In his usual off-kilter, creepy way his display is a small masterclass – it’s almost a shame there isn’t more of him in it.
There’s so much more to say about this film, but I had intended to keep this review relatively short. Having failed with that, I’ll conclude it at this point. When reviewing Schindler’s List I noted that to even give it a score was an arbitrary task, but one I undertook for the sake of consistency in my reviewing format. To plagiarise my own work, I’m saying the same thing of this Steve McQueen masterpiece. A bleak picture, but an important one, this is indisputably an instant classic. When you see it, be privileged that you are seeing a film that will be remembered forever as a true-great. It is at all times profoundly affecting and sugar coats nothing – nor should it. 12 Years A Slave is one of the greatest films you will ever watch.