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.

Review – Lincoln

There’s a moment at the start of Lincoln when you fear Steven Spielberg isn’t going to be able to resist going all Amistad on us and clubbing you over the head with the film’s message.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

The scene is thus: following a brief prologue of Civil War carnage involving black and white soldiers (proving that everyone is equal on the battlefield), a black union soldier respectfully gibes the President about inequality. Two white unionists approach separately and in worshipful tones quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago…”) back to him, but stumble over the final words, leaving it to the African-American trooper to complete the recital before rejoining his company.

On the face of it, this opening four minutes or so brings to mind the sort of heavy-handed approach Spielberg has so often been guilty of in his historical epics. Yet, delve a little deeper and it becomes apparent Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s direction are very cleverly revealing two contrasting perceptions of Lincoln; on one side is the saintly Honest Abe figure common to school textbooks, on the other the crafty politician with a gift for oratory who nevertheless knows that deeds, not words are what’s needed.

Lincoln focuses tightly on the final four months of the Republican president’s life, centring on the politicking and increasingly frantic horse-trading that took place in the darkened corridors of power in early 1865 to secure passage through the House of Representatives of the crucial 13th Amendment to the US Constitution to formally abolish slavery.

Lincoln

Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis) mournfully surveys the battlefield in Lincoln

With the Civil War in its final death throes, time is of the essence for Lincoln, who is worried his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation decreeing that all slaves be freed will be thrown out by the courts once the war is over and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states of the south. Warned not to do it by those closest to him for fear of tarnishing his revered reputation, the President realises the opportunity could be lost and leans heavily on his colleagues to help him get the vote through.

Needing a two-thirds majority in the House, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) send lobbyists William Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) out to procure the crucial votes of on-the-fence Democrats by any means necessary.

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congessional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Three distinct threads run through the film – the war of words in the House between Democrats and Republican congressmen enjoying the sound of their own voice, the behind-the-scenes machinations, and the strain on Lincoln’s marriage to First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) – and it’s to Spielberg’s great credit that we never lose focus of any of them.

Kushner’s witty script is necessarily talky, and it pays not to lose attention, but the enormity of the stakes is always clear and the dialogue positively crackles in the hands of probably the greatest cast assembled for any Spielberg film to date.

Tommy Lee Jones, in his best role for years, has a ball as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, a radical anti-slavery advocate who can’t stop himself insulting Democratic leaders for sport, but knows when to keep his cards close to his chest when the need arises.

There’s a levity to the efforts of the lobbyists to curry the Democrats’ favour, although the grave seriousness of their task is not lost, and the vote itself is expertly handled by Spielberg, who ratchets up the tension like the old pro he is.

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

The ideologically led politics of Lincoln serves as a timely parallel to the entrenched state of today’s American party political system where petty in-fighting and belligerence can often push progress to the sidelines.

It seems appropriate that America’s most beloved President is played by arguably today’s greatest living actor and Daniel Day-Lewis is stupendous in the title role. He plays Lincoln as a kindly uncle who chooses to win people over with an amusing anecdote or a subtle observation and, ever the politician, engages in a lot of hand holding.

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

Day-Lewis makes it look effortless, finding a pause here or a change of tone there to give what will probably become the definitive take on this most adored of presidents. It’s a masterclass in the power of knowing when to underplay a role, to the extent that when some of the cast look in awe of the President you wonder whether it’s actually Day-Lewis they are marvelling at.

We see a more vulnerable Lincoln when he shares private moments with Mary, who has fallen apart following the death of their son and begs her husband to stop their other sibling Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the war effort. Their pained arguments are powerfully wrought, and Field is excellent as a figure who, like Abe, must compartmentalise personal grief for the good of the country.

Despite this being Spielberg’s most mature and discliplined work to date, he still can’t help himself on occasion, whether it be the rather obvious symbolism of a ticking clock and Lincoln glancing at his watch to show how time is running out, or the saccharine moment when the President walks to a window bathed in light upon hearing the vote has been passed.

Bringing to life a significant moment in the turbulent history of the world’s only superpower, who’d have thought a film where little happens for long periods could be this engrossing?