Review – 12 Years A Slave

To do a film about one of the darkest chapters in human history justice, it needs the sort of uncompromising and unflinching directorial stamp that Steve McQueen brings.

Not for the faint of heart, and neither should it be, 12 Years A Slave is, befittingly considering the director's original vocation, a work of art

Not for the faint of heart, and neither should it be, 12 Years A Slave is, as befits the director’s original vocation, a work of art

The British Turner Prize-winning artist’s two previous films, 2008’s Hunger and Shame (2011) both explored the outer limits of human behaviour and have remained as critically divisive as they are intransigent.

However, McQueen has broken out to a far wider audience with his remarkable adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, whilst staying true to his unique filmmaking sensibility.

The torment has only just begun for Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years A Slave

The torment has only just begun for Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years A Slave

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an accomplished violinist living with his wife and children in New York when he is deceived into accompanying two men to Washington, where he is kidnapped, transported to Louisiana and sold into slavery. The next dozen years are a living hell as he’s first ‘bought’ by hypocritical plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) before being sold on to a different ‘master’ in the form of the psychopathic and paranoid Edwin Epps (McQueen regular Michael Fassbender) to work on his cotton plantation.

Epps, like most of his kind, sees Solomon – renamed Platt – and the other slaves as nothing more than mere possessions which he can do with as he pleases, most sickeningly to the timid Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) whom he abuses repeatedly. As the brutality the sadistic Epps metes out to the slaves goes on seemingly without end, Solomon’s resolve and spirit gradually erode as despair and hopelessness at the thought of ever seeing his family again eat into his soul.

Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) first 'master' William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his cruel carpenter John Tibreats (Paul Dano) in 12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) first ‘master’ William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his cruel carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) in 12 Years A Slave

Certain critics have criticised 12 Years A Slave for straying far too long on the numerous gut-wrenching scenes of violent punishment (some have gone so far as to label the film ‘torture porn’). Similar denunciations were made about Hunger and Shame.

However, what few films about slavery there have been have almost all shied away from what life must have really been like for thousands upon thousands of people who were bought and sold as if they were apples and oranges. As tough as it is to watch (and it can be extremely tough at times), to water it down would have been a far bigger crime.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is brutalised at the hands of psychopathic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is brutalised at the hands of psychopathic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years A Slave

McQueen has cited the dark and bewitching work of Spanish painter Francisco Goya as a major influence on the film’s aesthetic design. It makes sense; just as in Hunger, there’s a hypnotic horror at work here that’s all the more potent for being so masterfully shot (the director’s signature lengthy takes and static shots are both liberally employed). Scenes of unfathomable suffering are bookended with moments of beautiful tranquility worthy of Terrence Malick – a sort of calm before and after the storm.

One of the film’s most distressing scenes comes when Solomon is saved from hanging at the hands of the racist overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano), but is left for hours on the verge of suffocation with his toes barely touching the muddy ground while other slaves go about their daily work and children play in the background. It’s a quietly chilling evocation of the institutionalism of slavery.

Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) begs Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for help in 12 Years A Slave

Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) begs Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for help in 12 Years A Slave

Another memorable shot comes early in the film when a chained Solomon stares helplessly out of his Washington cell as the camera pulls up to show The White House – a supposed symbol of justice and equality.

However, perhaps 12 Years A Slave‘s most devastating image comes when Solomon breaks the fourth wall and stares hollow eyed at the audience in hopeless exasperation. For me, it’s the single greatest shot of any film this year.

Ejiofor is simply magnificent is the central role. The horrors he is forced to witness and participate in etch themselves on his face. The actor loses himself in the part and is mesmerising to watch.

Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) happy family before being kidnapped in 12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) happy family before being kidnapped in 12 Years A Slave

Many of the film’s supporting cast are superb, in particular the incredible Nyong’o as the tragic Patsey and Fassbender, whose bravura performance as Epps is terrifying and genuinely unhinged. While Django Unchained‘s plantation owner Calvin Candie got all the best lines, there’s nothing glamorous to Epps; he’s just a monster whose evil is as ferocious as it is deadly.

It’s not a perfect film; John Ridley’s screenplay is a little too on-the-nose at times, especially in the scenes between Solomon and a noble Canadian labourer played by Brad Pitt, who gets to speechify about the sin of slavery. In addition, the radiance of the scenes with Solomon’s family early in the film tries too hard to exacerbate the darkness that is to come.

These are insignificant quibbles, however, in a film that comes as close to visual poetry as I’ve seen for a long time. Not for the faint of heart, and neither should it be, 12 Years A Slave is, as befits the director’s original vocation, a work of art.

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27 comments

  1. keith7198 · January 10, 2014

    Very nice review! I had a few issues with the movie that kept it from being one of my very favorites of the year. That said, I still really liked it. It’s powerful and moving and when McQueen keeps things under control it offers some of the best cinema of the year. Didn’t quite make my top 10 but definitely top 20. Really good movie

    • Three Rows Back · January 10, 2014

      Thanks so much Keith. I know this hasn’t been to everyone’s tastes. I adored Hunger and Shame so I had a level of expectation going in and it didn’t disappoint. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen recently where the audience left in near silence.

  2. jjames36 · January 10, 2014

    Great review. On this one we completely agree. So let’s just forget about Behind the Candelabra. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · January 10, 2014

      Ha ha; I suppose we can forget about that! Glad you agree with me on this.

  3. vinnieh · January 10, 2014

    Excellent review, I really want to see this movie.

    • Three Rows Back · January 10, 2014

      Appreciate that Vinnie. I’m so glad I got to see it on the big screen; what a film.

  4. CMrok93 · January 10, 2014

    It never backs away from what it’s talking about, and for that, I give the movie a whole slew of credit and respect. Good review.

    • Three Rows Back · January 10, 2014

      Thanks Dan. McQueen’s not one to compromise I feel and that’s what makes 12 Years a Slave such an experience.

  5. Dan · January 10, 2014

    A late contender for film of 2013 – I think this will take home the BAFTA for best film.

    • Three Rows Back · January 10, 2014

      I agree. Had I seen this in 2013 it would have been my film of the year. To be honest this will probably make my film of 2014 already and we’re only a week or so in.

      • Dan · January 30, 2014

        Do you think this will win Best Picture or Best Director? I think it’ll be this or Scorsese’s Wolf but maybe the top honors will be shared among Picture, Director, and Actor.

  6. ckckred · January 11, 2014

    Nice review. It’s a hard movie to watch and digest but I was stunned at what I saw. The most brutally honest picture in 2013 and also one of the best.

    • Three Rows Back · January 11, 2014

      Thanks buddy. Had I watched this in 2013 it would have been my film of the year. If I watch a better film this year then 2014 will be exceptional.

  7. Mark Walker · January 11, 2014

    Another outstanding review here Mark. I’m going to catch this one soon. Hunger and Shame are two of my favourite films so it goes without saying that I’m very eager to see this.

    • Three Rows Back · January 11, 2014

      You’re, as always, too kind sir! I very, very strongly suspect that you will be as bowled over by this as I was. If you loved Hunger and Shame then you’ll find this something else entirely.

  8. Chris · January 11, 2014

    Nice review. As you said, it may not be perfect, but certainly a damn good film nonetheless. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · January 11, 2014

      Much appreciated Chris. “Damn good” is an understatement in my book. This is as good a work of cinema as I can remember.

  9. jdym00 · January 12, 2014

    Excellent review. I believe this will go down as a classic that each generation should watch. Steve McQueen may be one of the best directors out there working.

    I have a film site called jarwatchesfilms2.com which is a review of every movie I’ve seen for the first time this year– would you mind exchanging blogroll links?

    • Three Rows Back · January 12, 2014

      I quite agree. Thanks for your comments. I am now ‘following’ you; look forward to reading your posts.

  10. dirkmalcolm · January 13, 2014

    Looking forward to seeing this … Its the awards season and there are so many great films out all at once! For the rest of the year it will be the usual bobbins!

    • Three Rows Back · January 15, 2014

      It’s a bit annoying isn’t it. Like being starved and then force fed lots of sweets.

  11. ruth · January 13, 2014

    Great review Mark! I just finished mine last night and still putting the finishing touches. I agree that despite some quibbles, this is a stellar work by McQueen. Not for the faint of heart indeed, the brutal scenes left me speechless and shaken for days! The performances really won me over, esp. Chiewetel’s, an actor I’ve been following for quite some time. Hope you’ll stop by and compare notes when my review is up 😀

  12. Tom · January 18, 2014

    Great review man. This movie damn near put me in tears. It was truly awful. I too had a few issues.

    Is it really really wrong of me to think it odd and “convenient” of the Academy to select it as Best Picture (if indeed it does get that attention) since it’s a mirror-image of what life was really like on these Southern plantations, based on the graphic and violent cruelty? That needs to have been shown, sure. But I feel that’s the sole reason it’s going to win. Chiwetel is brilliant. But if we take away the rawness of the images, it would be interesting to see how the reactions might have changed. Not that it had an obligation to be a ‘pretty’ movie, as you noted at the end. I’m just curiously analyzing the fact that it’s so damn violent and depressing, yet it’s getting lauded as ‘the best film ever.’

    • Three Rows Back · January 20, 2014

      Thank you Tom; I appreciate that a lot buddy. As for your comments, I think the film should win, first and foremost, because it is a fabulous and urgent work of cinema. The fact it was the first film to properly address a subject that, for shameful reasons, hadn’t been given the respect of having its true horrors put on screen before is just another reason why 12 Years a Slave should be and, I believe, will be seen as an important chapter in American cinema.

      In terms of taking the rawness of the images away, well, if you did that the film would turn into Amistad. It would also, as I noted in my review, cheapen the whole endeavour. You’re right when you say that ‘feel bad cinema’ often gets the Oscar voters in rapture, but in this case it’s totally justified. In my opinion, anyway!

  13. Anonymous · March 4, 2014

    The points where the gradually kill the sound an focus in on one of the characters adds alot to this movie and yes , it stays true to the message the whole time. Challenging yet relatable

    • Three Rows Back · March 4, 2014

      That is a great moment in a stupendous film. Thanks for the feedback; always great to hear other viewpoints.

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