Directing only his third feature film, the latest picture from Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has not only captivated audiences worldwide, but astounded critics, and landed nine Academy Award nominations (including prestigious Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor nods, among others), but there’s still no denying that 12 Years A Slave is a hard going movie.
Adapted from the 1853 memoir of the same name, and telling the true story of a free black man who was kidnapped, and sold into slavery; where he then spent the following decade working for various Louisiana plantation owners; 12 Years A Slave features an all-star cast, and tells the truly harrowing tale of one man’s struggle against oppression, and a system so corrupt and morally bankrupt you can’t help but feel for him, and be shocked at some of the situations he finds himself in, and the attitudes of some of the people he comes into contact with.
X-Men: First Class and Shame star Michael Fassbender is the perfect example of this; appearing (in an unnervingly realistic, and deservedly award-winning, portrayal) as the vile plantation owner, and renowned “nigger-breaker”, Edwin Epps; a man who routinely beats, breaks, whips, and rapes his slaves (even regarding certain slaves above his equally vile wife). In fact Fassbender is by far the best thing in the film, and the vicious intensity which he exudes when he allows himself to explode is such a heart-stoppingly believable, and scarily fierce, draw that his scenes are often those which will make the cinema fall deafly silent, and both mesmerise yet disturb everyone watching. Yet it’s a testament to his acting ability that in some small ways, you’re also able to empathise with him, and believe him to be a more fully rounded person than the caricature he first appears to be.
Sadly the same cannot be said for Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men); who, while an undeniably talented actor, and one who does put in a decent turn as the downtrodden, titular, slave, doesn’t actually do that much other than appear more educated than the majority of his peers, and stare at the camera looking sad, a lot. Granted you’d be pretty sad if you had to endure the same hardships as Solomon (a man who, aside from being separated from his family, beaten, having to hide his educated nature, and witness all manner of crimes committed against people who didn’t deserve them, was even denied his own name), but it feels like any number of actors could’ve delivered just as good a showing as Ejiofor without too much trouble.
Relative unknown Lupita Nyong’o however delivers a fantastic showing as the similarly downtrodden slave Patsy (the object of Epps’ “affections”), and is both flawless and empathetic throughout, as are the majority of the superbly strong supporting cast; Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) is excellent as a somewhat sympathetic slaver, Paul Giamatti (Ironclad) is horrifying as a merciless slave-trader, Paul Dano (Looper) is disturbingly believable as a wicked slave-driver, Sarah Paulson (Mud) is sadistic yet rounded as Mrs Epps, and Brad Pitt (World War Z) is also well placed as a travelling labourer who’s sympathetic to the plight of the slaves (despite his role being so minor he could’ve easily been replaced with almost any other actor).
As tales of downtrodden slaves go, we’ve basically seen every incident that occurs during Solomon’s journey a hundred times, but what makes 12 Years A Slave stand out (even more than the simple act of containing such politically potent subject matter) is not only the strength of the cast’s performances, but the smaller things; the lighting is fantastic, set design and costuming is excellent, and the cinematography is simply breathtaking.
12 Years A Slave is so wonderfully shot, and invests a lot of effort in showing the beauty of the landscapes within which our slave finds himself, it does an excellent job of making the wealth of natural beauty on show starkly contrast against the man-made hell Solomon is trapped within, and making audience members feel for the slaves all the more; something which McQueen’s direction manages to achieve throughout; ensuring that you’re constantly relating to Solomon and his peers, and not only taking this uncomfortable journey with him, but consistently captivated, and repulsed, by what you’re watching.
One of the best things about the film also has to be the music, or lack thereof, because while Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight Rises, Man Of Steel) has once again produced a wonderfully emotive score to accompany McQueen’s vision, it’s perfectly minimalistic, and it’s often the scenes without music, or any sounds except crickets, breathing, whips cracking, or people wailing, that have the most impact, and really, really, stick with you for days after watching.
Yet while sound design may be top notch, casting was perfect, the acting is exceptional, direction was wonderful, and both the costuming and set design were of a similarly high standard, 12 Years A Slave is still a difficult film to get behind; 12 years is a long time to condense into a mere two hour movie, there’s too many lengthy shots of Ejiofor simply looking miserable at the camera, and unlike a film like Trust (which had a poignant, and importantly relevant, message which needs to be told) the message behind 12 Years A Slave is already well known; it’s takes two hours to teach us that slavery is bad. We already know slavery is bad (that’s why it was abolished).
The good far outweighs the bad however, and 12 Years A Slave is well deserving of its numerous award nominations and wins, because it not only delivers exactly what you’d expect, but far far more. It does have a somewhat flat and subdued feeling throughout, and will likely leave you feeling exhausted when it’s over. Though if you enjoy dramas focussing on the downtrodden, are passionate about the subject matter, or simply want to see an exceptionally well made film, you can’t do much better than watch 12 Years A Slave; far from a film for everyone (certainly not those looking for a piece of popcorn-escapism), but a true piece of cinematic quality, and one of the best films ever made on the subject.