Monday, 13 January 2014

12 Years a Slave (2013) - ★★★★½

Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Solomon Northup (novel), John Ridley (screenplay)
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films ever made. It has brought to life a terrible period of history that hasn’t been explored in such a way for a very long time. It’s a remarkably emotional film, that left me swamped with tears and feeling better for having seen it. It’s not quite the masterpiece I expected it to be, but it certainly deserves praise for being one of the best films of the past few years.

It is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free man who lived in Washington with his family. He is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he ends up working on the plantation run by a ruthless owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). 

The greatest thing about 12 Years a Slave is the way McQueen had the balls to show just how ruthless some Southerners were towards slaves. One of the most horrifying sequences in the film was during the buying and selling of the slaves. Having them all standing there naked, being patted and bumped hard to show how “sturdy and strong” they are… it was one of the most sickening things I’ve ever seen. The degradation that they had to endure was really eye opening for me. Something I haven’t really seen a film showcase to such an extent. Above all, the most unforgettable, excruciating scene to watch was the whipping of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). That scene really got to me. It showed the full extent of just how agonising being whipped is, and it has now become an image I will never forget. In some ways, 12 Years a Slave has shown us these injustices in the same brutal fashion as other historical masterpieces, like Schindler’s List for example. 

The cinematography was phenomenal in the way it showed us a most beautiful side of the South, but also the horrendous human beings within it. Every single scene of the environment surrounding Solomon did so much in telling us a story within itself. From the tall trees that have seen many slaves fall, to the haunting sunsets that signal the end of a backbreaking day of labour, these moments were essential to setting the tone of the film. What’s more impressive is the way the camera showed the emotional side of the human beings involved. Close-ups were the key to making the emotional impact sear into the minds of the audience. Every time I saw Nyong’o or Ejiofor’s facial expressions, it made my heart heavy with despair at their struggle to get through each day. The way the camera captured these images were truly masterful, which is why I’d be happy for 12 Years a Slave to pick up an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

However, there was one scene that completely took me out of the movie. After Solomon is kidnapped and chained up, one of his captors repeatedly hits him across the back with a wooden paddle. The effects used to accentuate the sound of the impact were ridiculously over the top. It literally sounded like the bad sound effects used when Arnold Schwarzenegger punches the bad guys in his movies. Masterful film or not, I just couldn’t take that scene seriously. In fact, almost all of the violent sound effects were too cartoony. 

I have mixed feelings about the score by Hans Zimmer. His music has a very electronic, modern sound to it. At times, there are very harrowing, beautiful tunes that accentuate the emotional impact by ten-fold. At other times, it just doesn’t match the scenes at all, for it sounds more suited to films like World War Z or Inception. There are too many deep, loud, bass-like “BWAHS,” and not enough classic instrumental pieces to really give a sense of the time period in which this film is set. I love Zimmer, but his secondary scores really didn’t do much for 12 Years a Slave. With that being said, I still think the main-score of the film is spine-chillingly beautiful. 

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor stunned the world by giving one of the most moving performances in recent years. Damn this man can express emotion on his face! His quiet observations out-classed every silent-movie performance I've ever seen. He doesn't talk much, but instead he says it all with his eyes. The horrors that Solomon witnessed and the heartbreak he went through was very powerful in itself. Ejiofor's sensitive, powerhouse performance managed to accentuate every feeling I had, particularly despair. He would make a very worthy winner for Best Actor. 

Lupita Nyong'o gave one of the most moving supporting performances I've ever seen. I just gravitated towards Patsey, the extremely efficient cotton-picker that she played. Patsey was the favoured sex-slave of Edwin, and thus was treated horrendously by Edwin's wife. I don't know how Nyong'o did it, but I was so invested in Patsey that I held my breath every time she got into trouble. There were many masterful scenes where Nyong'o showed powerful emotions, but two really stick out in my mind. The first being when she was whipped over a bar of soap. That scene made me so upset that I felt physically sick. The look on her face was as if she was resigned to die... and afterwards, she looked and sounded like someone who had been through hell and back. One other scene that really got to me was her hug with Solomon at the end of the film, which broke my heart more than anything else. Her character was unforgettable, and Nyong'o's performance was easily one of the best of 2013. 

Michael Fassbender was astonishingly good, playing a character that was every bit as despicable as Amon Goeth from Schindler's List. He made it so damn easy to hate him, with his stubborn mind and ruthless methods. Many hail his performance as the standout of the film, and some even say he gave the greatest performance of the year. Period. Fassbender just completely became this horrible man, pulling off a role I never imagined he could play. He's fast becoming one of the most notable actors of the new generation, and his performance in 12 Years a Slave is yet another flawless notch on his belt. 

Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt.
The rest of the supporting cast each gave terrific performances. Sarah Paulson was the MVP of the smaller characters, playing a wife that is every bit as despicable as her slave-abusing husband. The venom in her words, and the pure hatred towards Patsey plastered on her face were bone-chilling. Paulson is a star on the rise, after her whirlwind role in Mud (2013). Benedict Cumberbatch was really good as a sympathetic, kind plantation owner. He has impressed me with his transition to Hollywood from the UK. Paul Dano is one of the greatest at playing unlikable characters, and he's no different in 12 Years a Slave. He was a crazy, abusive overseer that had it in for Solomon. The weakest performance for me was from Brad Pitt, who played a pro-abolitionist and sympathetic ear to Solomon. He was fine, but I was always acutely aware that I was watching Brad Pitt play Brad Pitt. 

Paul Giamatti and Adepero Oduya were outstanding in their small roles. It was cool to see Chalky from -
Boardwalk Empire too!
12 Years a Slave is an unforgettable treasure. African-American slavery is a subject that many of us are well acquainted with, but I don't think there has ever been a film that shows it in such a harrowing, emotional way. Roots (the TV-series from 1977) would have to be the closest the mainstream media has ever come to telling a story of slavery in such a raw, powerful way. I love that director Steve McQueen confronts us with such searing images, and doesn't go overboard with the sentimentality either. It really is a well balanced film with such an important story to tell. I'd be lying if I called it perfect, but I can say that it is an instant classic, destined to be studied by film-students in future. 

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