12 YEARS A SLAVE
Sponsored by ST. ERMIN'S HOTEL, LONDON
Sponsored by ST. ERMIN'S HOTEL, LONDON
Release Date: 28 January 2014 (UK)
Director: Steve McQueen
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong'O, Sarah Paulson
Screening Reviewed: London Film Festival Accenture Gala Press Screening
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
From the offset, there is an almost indefinable gravitas and cinematic clout to 12 Years A Slave that cement it as important, meaningful cinema as well as a likely critical and awards darling. And whilst there are traces of his signature filmic traits and tropes, most notably a confident and unabashed intimacy with oft-taboo peels of the human condition such as graphic sexuality, nudity and violence, this is surprisingly director Steve McQueen’s most accessible and mainstream outing as mentioned offers only fleeting similarities to his previous works Shame and Hunger.
Based on the real life story and memoir of African American Solomon Northup in mid 1980’s New York who was tricked and sold into slavery despite being a fairly affluent and successful free man, 12 Years A Slave is a decidedly more sobering and focused look at a subject tackled by a number of high-profile film projects in the past year or so alone. Whereas Django Unchained utilised slavery almost as the macguffin or catalyst for a western revenge epic with an ethnic twist, and Lincoln offered a more distanced and political perspective on the issue, 12 Years is a raw, intensely focused and deeply human survival odyssey which never trivialises or pulls back from the brutal truth, savagery and almost hopeless futility of what it meant to actually be a slave, levied and strengthened by it being a depiction of actuality and event.
For some, the abuse and torture of body, mind and spirit that 12 Years A Slave so truthfully and continually depicts may be too explicitly and morbidly depicted to glean much in the way of pure entertainment factor, but to resort to such reactionary and base criticism would be to overlook a film of quite blistering power and faultless conviction. And whilst this must remain a review of the film and not a treatise or debate on its historically accuracy or the subject of slavery as a whole, it is prudent to remember that not only did these atrocities happen but they were also fairly meticulously detailed in the memoir from which the film is adapted. This is not a Tarantino-esque explosion of graphic mayhem and devilish excess - every rend of skin, crack of whip and snuff of life is a stark reminder of atrocities and a way of life that is often given a dishonest and condescending sugarcoating in film.
Sumptuously shot, masterfully directed and boasting a stellar cast who give intense, powerhouse performances across-the-board, 12 Years A Slave for all of its potentially polarising content remains a remarkably well made and masterfully crafted piece of cinema. John Ridley’s adaptation work coupled with McQueen’s instinctive, almost vignetted approach to the narrative at hand cultivates a story that moves briskly and with purpose through it’s 12 year timeline, and whilst at points there is little clarity on precisely how much time has passed during Northup’s ordeal (the title is kind of a spoiler in regards to it being finite), their confident handling lends the film and its plot a sense of palatable immediacy and satisfying pacing. At just over 2 hours, this is a film that is wonderfully contained and expertly judged, neither overstaying its welcome, dwelling on subplots or secondary characters (Solomon remains almost exclusively front-and-centre) or inflicting any of its protagonists’ fatigue upon its audience.
Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the movie with a supremely impressive performance exuding nobility, grace and sheer fortitude both physical and spiritual. He is a mostly reactionary and resolute figure, Northup mostly focused on simply surviving and enduring, desperately trying to remain hopeful even as his situation progressively and repeatedly deteriorates around him. Compared to the more typical, highly Hollywood-ised figure of, say, Django, there is a humanity, restraint and poise to Northup that again feels far more truthful and accurate to both the times and his circumstances, yet wholly empathetic and without the character seeming defeatist or resigned to his fate. A slew of accomplished actors portray his slavers and the figures of oppression around him, from Benedict Cumberbatch’s somewhat more benevolent slaver Ford, a wickedly unhinged turn by Paul Dano through to the movies central antagonists in the form of the despicable Edwin and Mistress Epps, portrayed by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson respectively. Both give stellar yet horrifying turns, and present a perfect dichotomy of pure malevolence; she a cold, heartless figure of unflinching contempt and viciousness (‘a woman drowning in her own fears’ as Paulson described her at the TIFF press conference) and he a fiery, erratic and barely contained borderline sadist and psychopath. If there is any criticism to be levied at the Epps in particular, it is that they are wholly detestable figures with practically no redeeming features (bar, perhaps, Mistress Epps’ feelings of inadequacy given her husband’s wandering sexual interests) but given again the evidentiary nature of their roles and behaviour, it is admirable that McQueen and Ridley did not sentimentalise history nor attempt to justify or humanise that which is resolutely indefensible.
Lupita Nyong’o rounds out the core cast as Patsey, Northup’s fellow slave under the Epps’ tyranny who survives through a combination of being excessively productive at cotton picking whilst also allowing Fassbender’s Epps to pay her nightly visits. Nyong’o is given some of the films more difficult and emotionally devastating scenes, and she rises to them throughout with a supremely moving and powerful performance that is quite rightly already attracted it’s fair share of early Oscar buzz.
In truth, it is hype, praise and buzz that is extending throughout practically every department of the movie as the awards season leers closer, and rightfully so. 12 Years A Slave manages to somehow be both bleak, harrowing and desperate whilst simultaneously celebrating the power of the human spirit, the conviction and fortitude of one man in impossibly awful circumstances and never loses track of its own identity and the sincerity and humanity of the story it is telling. It is an odyssey for one mans freedom, but also his spirit and mind, and for such grandiose descriptions and objectives, as a technical and cinematic construct it is equally ambitious and impressive. Some may find it overbearingly bleak or difficult, but for those who can weather the hardships, this is as impacting, brutally affecting and brilliantly sincere as cinema gets.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
The 57th BFI London Film Festival ran in full from 09 - 20 October 2013 in partnership with American Express. Press Screenings for the festival began 23 September 2013.