12 Years A Slave: Movie Review
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o
Director: Steve McQueen
Lavished with Oscar nominations, SAG awards, PGA awards and Golden Globes, 12 Years A Slave arrives on our screens with expectations and in some quarters, a little dread over its subject matter.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (rightly nominated for glory and deserving of the win should Oscar come a-knocking) plays Solomon Northup, a talented violinist, living in Saratoga, New York in 1841 as a free man, with a wife and family. As his wife and family head away for an annual commitment, Solomon is offered work in Washington which he duly takes. However, after a night of partying with them, he awakes to find himself in chains, renamed and shipped off into slavery.
Northup's first master is a relatively benevolent one, William Ford (played with earnest by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch) but thanks to the racism on the grounds, he ends up nearly hanged and is sold on to Michael Fassbender's Edwin Epps, a cruel and sadistic man who is prone to breaking his slaves.
Thus begins Northup's quest to survive, his attempts to maintain his dignity and his desperate fight to win back his freedom amid betrayal, unexpected kindness, utterly repugnant cruelty and horrifying attitudes toward fellow human beings.
12 Years A Slave is a totally brutal film - perhaps inevitably so given its true life subject matter and that within five minutes of beginning, our hero is beaten to within an inch of his life by a paddle wielded by a new master.
Its strength though lies in the relative restraint of its film-maker, Steve McQueen and its lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. While McQueen does not flinch from showing every second of the horror with the camera holding firm and forcing you to confront the violence, he shows a remarkably masterful touch at telling a story which gets so dark and sickening, you will find it hard to stomach in places.
Unlike many of his ilk, McQueen does not turn this film into a worthy piece about one of humanity's darkest days, choosing instead to blend together a movie that doesn't flinch from its subject matter, but also doesn't seek to make light of it, dish out platitudes or beset it with sentimental moments in among the bleak story.
Throughout it all, Ejiofor commands the screen, imbuing the real life Northup with a dignity and grace as he tries to survive that is all the more heartbreaking given what he had to endure. A remarkable long shot where Northup is hung out on a plantation leaves nausea in the pit of your stomach, as he scrabbles for air, looks around him and faces a desolate inevitability; but every moment of that horror is understated by Ejiofor and as a result, the audience is in total sympathy with him, aghast that around Northup, people are going about their daily business, untroubled by the life slipping away next to them.
Among the betrayals, the heartfelt pleas from a fellow slave to show her some kindness and kill her, the hardships that Northup endured, Ejiofor remains a presence throughout amid close ups and thanks to the dignity of his portrayal. While you get little insight into his psychological state throughout, his final scenes will reduce you to tears, a cathartic testament to a 2 hour portrayal that has showcased the best of humanity when it's pitted against the very worst.
Juxtaposed to such grandeur is Fassbender's cruel and sadistic Epps, a man who rapes his favourite slave and whose towering monstrousness is a blight on those around him. It's an ugly and repugnant role, which Fassbender commands and taps into something within to leave you utterly hating the man. Thanks to that unrelenting spirit and McQueen's lingering camera which circles around during some whipping sequences, you will find yourself questioning humanity and what we've done, but never find yourself brushing it off with a trite dismissal or tricked by a naively blithe moment deployed by the director to counteract the darkness.
That's really the power of 12 Years A Slave - the sickeningly visceral period piece has a way of inveigling itself under your skin, but has such a pull that it's hard to deny - if there's a more perfect, more powerful and more harrowing or sobering film up for an Academy Award this year, I've yet to see it.