Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chitewel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 134 min
Plot: A true life tale based on the memoirs of free man turned slave Solomon Northup.
There are times at the cinema when the urge to use the toilet becomes unbearable, and ashamed of your puny bladder, you skulk off for a spot of relief. If ever there was a film to prevent you from doing so, it’s 12 Years A Slave. In the face of slavery’s abject horrors such a plight feels of little consequence, but more than that, you simply won’t want to miss a second of this gut-wrenching masterpiece. Steve McQueen’s magnificent direction and two astonishing lead performances will have you pinned to your seat, no matter how bad you need to go.
Happily for a man of his time and race, Solomon Northup was free. A skilled musician and engineer, Northup enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle with his wife and children in the American capital. One day in 1841, this idyll was shattered when a couple of white men– fellow performers of Northup’s – pulled a Judas and sold him into slavery. Over the next (you guessed it ) 12 years, Solomon was subject to the whims of his white ‘owners’, dragged from plantation to plantation like livestock. Rebranded as Platt the ‘Georgian runaway’, Solomon clings to life and the ever dimming hope of seeing his family once again. Comparisons between 12 Years and various movies in the surprisingly limited slavery genre are inevitable. Unlike Oscar hungry, straight- out- of- a- civil- rights- textbook films Amistad and Glory, 12 Years has surpassed exploitations and cliché to become a work of true importance.
In a film this dark most wouldn’t expect much in the way of eye candy, but you get it in trough- loads. Each and every shot is stunning, and not a frame goes to waste. McQueen’s uncompromising vision is testament to his passion for the story he’s telling. When it comes to symbolism, there is a fine line between art and pretension, and McQueen is always on the right side of it. Such is his awareness of the natural surroundings that even close-ups of insects inching across cotton plants (something typically considered to be an indulgence) feel of value. Perfect lighting and brazen cinematography combine to ensure your complete and continued immersion. Often, the camera lingers on an actor’s face for what is definitely longer than a comfortable length of time, yet more can be gleaned from these moments than could be from a whole page of dialogue.
Not many actors could channel primal rage with such complex restraint, but as Solomon Northup, Chitewel Ejiofor does it flawlessly. He becomes his character and he owns the film. Breakout actress Lupita Nyong’o is equally remarkable as prized slave Patsey. In real life, the young girl’s behaviour had shocked even Solomon; ‘How can you fall into such despair?’ Nyong’o goes to harrowing depths in order to convey the pain Patsey felt in each waking moment of her tortured existence. Lashings of A-listers beef out the cast, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Paul Giamatti to Brad Pitt (a little ostentatious, that last cameo). Michael Fassbender portrays the most revolting of all the characters, Edwin Epps, yet in his own drunkenly deluded way, Epps is also saddening. To see these familiar faces engage in such depravity serves as a stark reminder of how recently such events transpired. To live in an age of (comparative) enlightenment is something to be thankful for.
An unobtrusive score from Hans Zimmer is surpassed by a series of powerful gospel songs . The slave- sung accapellas ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ and ‘Move’ are the real hard hitters of the soundtrack and serve as a vehicle for the gradual deconstruction of Northup’s identity as a freeman. Most important of all, of course, is the story. It is surprising that Northup’s life hasn’t been blockbuster-d before now, and to have an auteur like Steve McQueen bring it to the screen is a gift. 12 Years A Slave is powerful film making and should be experienced by all (over the age of 15).