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.


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