Having already received huge critical acclaim for his first two films, the gruelling Hunger and the controversial Shame, former video artist Steve McQueen turns his skilful directorial hand to the 19th century and the barbaric slavery that took place in the southern United States. The result is a harrowing and brutally raw depiction of terrible atrocities that’s as compelling as it is vital.
Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup (played in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor), the film follows his journey from being a free man to being kidnapped and sold into slavery, witnessing his struggle to survive as he is moved from plantation to plantation.
As with any film that deals with an atrocity on the level of slavery, one would hope that the director behind it depicts the subject with the harshness and brutality needed to truly tell the story at hand. With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino never wavered in how he showed the actual barbarity of the time itself but surrounded that with outlandish characters, set pieces and even comedy, taking much more of a heightened approach. Here McQueen treats the subject matter as no laughing matter with a film that’s undoubtedly hard to watch, as it should be, never softening the effect in favour of making it more palatable to the viewer. However, that’s not to say that the film is built purely as an endurance test. It’s true that there are segments that are tough to endure but it’s entirely warranted. Not only is it frank in its portrayal of the savagery itself but truly expresses the emotional and psychological hardship through which Solomon, and others, suffered.
This is helped largely by a cast of first-rate actors who are all at the top of their game. Ejiofor is revelatory in the lead performance of a man stolen from his life, his power and control over his own existence abruptly ripped away and trying his best to hold onto whatever dignity he has left. With the exception of a couple of scenes of eloquent outbursts about why, for example, he’s continuing to toil away “till freedom is opportune” as opposed to fighting back, it’s a very insular and quiet performance.
It’s a testament to McQueen and writer John Ridley that as much as the film is an intensely personalised story of one man’s struggle to survive, it also feels universal and perhaps even transcendent in the way it deals with pain and suffering but also offers light at the end of the tunnel, as small and fading as that may seem in the moment. And it takes a talented actor like Ejiofor to be able to channel that to the audience, communicating more with a long stare or sideways look than most actors would be able to with a whole scene of dialogue.
Ejiofor is rightly given the spotlight to show of his remarkable acting talent but newcomer Lapita Nyong’o almost steals the show as fellow slave Patsey, one of those performances that makes you sit up and truly take notice of a clearly bright new talent. Michael Fassbender is similarly excellent as the brutal, hateful slave owner Edwin Epps, who treats Patsey as his own personal object, while a host of known faces – including Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano, among others – float in and out of the story in a way that gives more weight to the proceedings while at the same time never distracting from the drama.
Having already won the Best Film award at the Golden Globes and sure to feature heavily in this coming Oscars, 12 Years A Slave is one of those rare films that lives up to its plaudits. From the direction and the performances to Sean Bobbitt’s beautiful, striking cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s powerful musical score, this is essential viewing for this or any other time. On the surface it may seem as if it has one message and nothing more; slavery is bad. But it has a lot more to say than that about human survival, endurance, and having hope where there appears to be none. And it’s done in a way that’s uncompromising, insightful, brave, honest, artistic – though never artsy, something McQueen seems to have reigned in here – and ultimately uplifting. Like some directors before him in recent years (notably Paul Greengrass with United 93), McQueen has created a masterpiece out of a tragedy.
[youtube id=”iiw1cYXQw4g” width=”600″ height=”350″]