VOD film review: 12 Years a Slave
James R | On 05, May 2014
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt
After the astonishing Shame and hard-hitting Hunger, artist-turned-director Steve McQueen has made a name for himself for tackling difficult subjects head-on – and for doing it beautifully.
12 Years a Slave continues the first part of that tradition, but skips the second. Those expecting long, fluid takes and stunning composition will be surprised, or perhaps disappointed: this is blunt cinema.
Based on the book of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells just that: the true story of Solomon Northup’s captivity for over a decade. That only makes the events of his memoir more brutal to witness; this isn’t a Hollywood drama about the issue of slavery. This actually happened.
Solomon (Ejiofor) begins life as a free man in Saratoga, New York. He’s an educated man, who can read, write and play the violin. The offer of work with travelling musicians is of great interest, but after a night of drinking, he finds himself renamed as Platt and sold to a string of owners.
At the beginning of 2013, Tarantino’s Django Unchained explored the complicated relationships between slaves and their masters through the character of Samuel L. Jackson’s butler. Away from the caricature of fantasy, McQueen’s movie takes place in the sickening real life of the 1800s, where each of Solomon’s owners occupies a complex shade of grey.
There’s money-minded Theophilius (Giamatti), a trader who thinks nothing of separating Eliza (a gut-wrenching Adepero Oduye) from her kids. He sells Platt to William Ford (Cumberbatch), a preacher who listens to what Platt has to say – much to the disgust of the estate’s hand, John (a quivering Paul Dano). But while Ford is fair, he turns a blind ear to Solomon’s back-story. “Have something to eat and get some rest,” his wife (Liza J. Bennett) says gently to Eliza. Then adds: “Your children will soon be forgotten.” Even those who seem compassionate never even consider changing society.
Michael Fassbender’s Eeps, on the other hand, is a nastier piece of work, who likes making his slaves dance in his living room in the night. For him, they are property, to be treated as their owner wishes – or, in the case of his favourite, Patsey, abused. Fassbender shocks with his acts, while Lupita Nyong’o breaks hearts as the object of his obsession. (In one of the film’s more uncomfortable scenes, she is encouraged by a former slave to comply in the hope that one day, she might be rewarded.)
Patsey’s tragic story crosses with Solomon’s when she leaves the plantation to get a bar of soap – a trip that Eeps, driven by his ruthless wife (an unrecognisable Sarah Paulson), punishes with lashes.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stands by and watches as the whipping begins. Indeed, when he isn’t the centre of the screen, he is always watching. a silent presence whose stoic face conveys the agony of his existence without saying a word – you’re unlikely to see a more charismatic yet understated performance all year. That pain reaches a crescendo when Eeps drags Solomon from the background into the foreground, ordering him to do the job. McQueen shoots the sequence in one single take: nothing cushions the violence of the blows.
That surprising shift in style is what ultimately makes 12 Years a Slave devastating rather than disappointing. McQueen composes his frame impeccably, but without flair; the director and his regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt treat Solomon’s suffering as straightforward (one moment involving a tree seems to go on forever).
The matter-of-fact approach applies to John Ridley’s script too: 12 Years a Slave is economical with its speech and plot details, letting Solomon’s experiences speak for themselves and never overplaying them. Accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s repetitive score, which echoes Inception’s In Time (the same chord progression as John Murphy’s Adagio from Sunshine), the ongoing string of cruelty becomes a cycle of horror. That gives even more impact to the slim possibility of Solomon’s reunion with his family. Unflinching and harrowing, this is powerful filmmaking at its least imposing.