12 Years A Slave (15)
- Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams
- Director: Steve McQueen
- Duration: 133 mins
- Year: 2013
Solomon Northup is a free black man from upstate New York in 1841. An encounter with two seemingly respectable gentlemen changes Solomon's life forever. He wakes up in chains and learns he has been sold into slavery.
Alison Rowat's Review
Great expectations ensued when it was announced that Steve McQueen, the British director of Hunger and Shame, was adapting Solomon Northups memoir of a free man kidnapped into slavery in 19th century America.
McQueen has duly delivered a drama that is as magnificently enraged as it is quietly, devastatingly, moving. Given its UK premiere at the London Film Festival last October, it was no surprise to find the picture nominated for 10 Baftas yesterday.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, a family man and musician living in New York in 1841. Hired for a job in Washington, he is drugged and sent to the south. If you want to survive, he is told, do and say as little as possible.
So begins Northups odyssey through innumerable circles of hell, most of them presided over by plantation owner Edwin Epps and his equally sadistic wife (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson).
McQueen is unflinching in his depiction of slavery and the systematic way it tried to rob its victims of all dignity. As such, 12 Years is often a difficult watch. But what shines through the bleakness is an inextinguishable sense of the human spirit and how it survives despite the cruelties visited on it.
Fassbender, a McQueen regular by now, commands the screen as the loathsome Epps, and there are places in the cast for Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt, also a producer of the film. The success of the picture, though, rests squarely on the shoulders of Ejiofor, and what an unforgettable performance he turns in as a man stripped to his physical and mental core.
Cinema has been no stranger to attempting to portray slavery, often with questionable results. Whatever efforts are made in future, it is hard to imagine anyone bettering McQueens towering indictment.
Paul Greenwood's Review
If the manner in which 12 Years a Slave is being advertised is anything to go by, there can be no doubting that were currently smack-dab in the middle of awards season.
The slavery drama, the third from British director Steve McQueen, is the current Oscar frontrunner and being widely reported on like its one of cinemas finest ever achievements.
In reality its often a gruelling slog, one thats undoubtedly brilliantly crafted, directed with an unsparing eye for detail and brimming with rawness and many a powerful scene, not to mention exquisite technical specs.
But its lack of a true emotional centre makes it more of an endurance test than a genuinely engaging piece of cinema.
Its the based-on-fact story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in 1840s New York, a family man and respected musician, who moves in well-heeled circles.
When hes hired, he thinks, to work as a musician with a circus, he travels to Washington with his new acquaintances where hes instead drugged, chained, renamed and called a runaway and sold into slavery.
As hes transported south, a merciless camera spares no punches on his mistreatment in a film that is harsh and doom-laden. But it reveals its true horrors and works far better in the quieter moments, such as the scene where Solomon is sold by Paul Giamattis slave trader in his front parlour as though theyre civilised men.
Hes bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and theres much of value here too, touching on whether Ford is actually a decent man at the mercy of circumstance. Solomon uses his intelligence not to curry favour with Ford, but to survive, and the pair build a mutual respect.
A roster of fine actors keeps rolling up until Solomon ends up at a plantation owned by Epps (Michael Fassbender, who has now appeared in all three of McQueens films). But its here that it really starts to come apart, becoming episodic and just plain odd in places.
Theres more brutality of course, much more of it, but the focus seems to switch to Epps and his wife and their vindictive and bizarre psycho-sexual relationship, one that drags in Solomon and fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyongo) who bears the brunt of suffering even more indignities than Solomon.
Theres no notion of the passage of time and no clue as to what Solomons family are going through. But at least we have a sturdy character in Solomon at the centre, brought to life by a very fine Ejiofor, who combines dignity and poise with a face filled with anguish at what he is going through.
Not many films have tackled slavery with such a clear and unflinching eye. Its probably to the films credit that its not really played for emotional manipulation or stirring retribution. But as a consequence theres no real up or down, just a level drone, and in the end it doesnt really add up to very much.
It would be wrong to criticise it for not providing the kind of fantasy thrills that Django Unchained did, or some sort of Count of Monte Cristo-style rebirth, but it feels like punishment. It feels like the slavery equivalent of The Passion of the Christ, enough to agitate with its horrors and brutality but unsustainable as drama.