Friday, 10 January 2014

12 Years A Slave - A Review

"I don't want to survive; I want to live." This, in a nutshell, is the plight of Solomon Northup, the protagonist of Steve McQueen's outstanding historical epic 12 Years A Slave. Adapted from the autobiography of the real-life Northup, the film chronicles his tragic story, beginning with his kidnap as a free black man from New York and following him as he is forced into an unflinchingly brutal life of slavery in the pre-Civil War South. 12 Years A Slave is not upbeat, nor is it particularly comfortable to watch, but it is so superb that it is undoubtedly the film to which all future depictions of slavery will be compared for a long time to come.

Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave
McQueen's direction is a masterstroke. He begins the film by seamlessly interweaving between Northrup's past life as a free man, where he is happy as a husband, father and musician, and his current life as a slave, shackled, mistreated, and denied even the basic right of his name. The juxtaposition is extremely effective. The knowledge of his eventual enslavement casts an impending sense of doom over the scenes of his free life; however, at the same time, the brief glimpses that McQueen provides into Northrup's free life make his kidnap that much worse. Furthermore, his trademark use of long, holding shots are also used to great effect. An early scene in which Northrup is savagely beaten, first with a paddle then with a belt, for protesting his innocence is depicted in one take. Similarly, a scene in which Northrup dangles from a tree, supporting himself only with the tips of his toes whilst other slaves calmly pass by in the background, is also shot in a single take. There is even a scene in which brutal floggings are relegated to the unfocused background of a shot of slaves picking cotton.The result is effective but also incredibly unsettling, for it provides the scenes not just with a sense of helplessness but also a sort of 'matter-of-factness', reminding the audience of the characters' casual acceptance of such horrific examples of inhumanity.

The film would not be what it is without the performances of three of its actors. Chiwitel Ejifor, of course, playing Northup is remarkable to watch, able to convey 12 years of pain and despair in a single look of his eyes. He lends his character a grittiness and steely determination as well as a gentle softness, which combine to make him someone with whom it is almost impossible not to empathise. Even more impressive is the interplay between Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, Northrup's second and sadistically vicious slave master, and Lupita Nyong'o, the hardworking, beautiful slave Patsey, to whom Epps is strongly attracted. In many ways the two performances are dichotomous. Fassbender, on the one hand, plays Epps with an incredible intensity, capturing every ounce of inner conflict and self-hatred that his character experiences, and giving off the impression that his built-up rage is ready to explode at any moment. Nyong'o's performance, on the other hand, is far more understated but equally as impressive. On the surface, a face of acquiescence; beneath, a woman being torn apart by repeated rape (at the hands of Epps) and the cruel hostilities of Epps's jealous wife. In fact, so astonishingly compelling is Nyong'o's performance that it is hard to believe that this is only her first major acting role. Her star will almost certainly burn bright for a long time to come.

Lupita Nyong'o is superb as Patsey.
Hans Zimmer's score, as always, is perfect. Though there are a number of arrangements of slave songs and folk music throughout the film, it is the main theme, Solomon, which stands out. In a fitting reference to Northrup's musical talents, it uses violins to create a poignant, sad, but fundamentally hopeful piece which succeeds in capturing the very essence of its namesake. All the scenes within 12 Years A Slave are brilliant, but the ones which feature this swelling Zimmer theme are made exceptional by it.

Though there is much violence within the film, it never feels gratuitous (the same cannot be said for last year's well-received slavery film, Django Unchained). The most brutal display of it occurs in what is also the most powerful scene: when a furious Epps, unable to do so himself (at least at first), forces Northrup to flog a stripped and bound Patsey to within an inch of her life. Nyong'o's resignation, Fassbender's fury, and Ejiofor's realisation that, after years of fighting to retain it, he is losing his humanity with every lash of the whip is deeply, deeply affecting and could make even the most hard-hearted of viewers weep.  

Chiwitel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave.
12 Years A Slave appears to be the slavery film that Hollywood had, until now, been too afraid to make. It does not shy away from its horrors, nor does it pretend that humanity was able to triumph in the face of such evil. It is a profoundly moving piece of film, and by the time the final scene faded to black in the showing I saw, many in the cinema were openly weeping. Quite simply, if McQueen's masterpiece does win Best Picture at this year's Oscars, it will be an injustice.


Thursday, 9 January 2014

American Hustle - A Review

Once again the film awards season is fast approaching, and one film that already looks poised to do well is David O. Russell's American Hustle. Following hot on the heels of Russell's last offering, the superb Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle features an all-star ensemble cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence, and provides a black comic take on a real-life sting operation from the 1970s which resulted in the conviction of several elected government officials. The plot itself is slow-moving, overlong and, at times, predictable, but what makes American Hustle truly stand out is the acting of its leads, who give one of the best ensemble performances in recent history.

American Hustle.
At the heart of the tale are Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams), two successful small-time con artists forced into working for Bradley Cooper's FBI agent Richard di Maso to procure the arrest of four individuals deemed to be corrupt. Along the way, a fake Sheik, a seemingly-corrupt but ultimately well-meaning mayor (Renner), and a run-in with the Mafia are thrown into the mix, and though individually these ingredients all have the making of a great story, when combined the result feels rather flat - more of a big-screen depiction of a substandard Hustle script than a nuanced tale of cunning and corruption. Russell, who wrote as well as directed the film, does try to find the right balance between comedy and drama, but unfortunately the oscillations between the two feel, for the most part, tonally jarring and poorly-handled. The sole exception to this comes in the form of Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence), Irving's neglected, stay-at-home wife whose moments of comic relief are both genuinely funny and disguise an intense desperation to be loved.

The setting is one of the few things that the film gets absolutely right. In many ways a love-letter to the 70s, American Hustle features garish outfits and retro haircuts aplenty. The real highlight, however, is the soundtrack. Featuring songs from the likes of Elton John, ELO and the Bee Gees, the music not only complements the moments it accompanies on screen, but helps to capture the very essence of the decade.

The plot and the soundtrack, however, are not what American Hustle is going to be remembered for. Without a shadow of a doubt, the highlight of the film is the acting. Christian Bale is almost unrecognisable as the balding, overweight Irving, Amy Adams delivers what may just be a career-best as Sydney, Jeremy Renner is utterly convincing as charismatic mayor Carmine Polito, and Jennifer Lawrence gives a simultaneously powerhouse and nuanced performance as Rosalyn. It is only Bradley Cooper who fails to reach the same heights as his fellow actors; he's very, very good, and he certainly captures his character's aggression, frustration and desperation to prove himself, but he's not quite on the level of Bale, Adams, Renner and Lawrence. (Special mention must also go to the actor whose uncredited surprise cameo in the middle of the film is a real high point.) In any other film, the individual performances of all five leads would have the potential to steal the show. In American Hustle, however, they combine to produce a truly outstanding display of acting at its very finest.
The ensemble cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence.
All in all, it will be a shame if American Hustle doesn't go on to pick up at least some awards over the coming few months. It doesn't deserve to win any of the Best Picture awards, but it sure as hell deserves some of the acting ones, particularly for its female leads. Amy Adams tends to be somewhat unlucky when it comes to the main awards ceremonies, but if ever there were a year for her to win, it's this one (even with the stellar Sandra Bullock as a rival contender). Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, already has more awards than you can shake a stick at, but her performance in American Hustle shows she's deserving of many, many more. Whilst the film as a whole is flawed to say the least, it is ultimately its cast that elevates it into something worthy of seeing and remembering.

Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are the stars who shine brightest in David O. Russell's American Hustle.