12 Years a Slave Movie Review 0 114

12 Years a Slave movie review

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.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 537

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 562

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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