Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o
Written by: John Ripley and (based on Twelve Years A Slave) Solomon Northup
Running Time: 134 mins
Release date: 10th January 2014
For months this has been the most eagerly anticipated film, with 10 BAFTA nominations, a handful of Golden Globes and probably a clutch of Oscar too (nominations haven’t been announced yet), 12 Years A Slave has finally arrived. So with all the hype, does it match the attention it has been receiving? Absolutely and then some. This is probably the most harrowing, gut-wrenching film I have seen in a very long time and I am still an emotional wreck.
Solomon Northup is a respected black musician with a loving wife and two children. His musical talents have managed to keep him a free man in a time where many black men and women were sent to slavery. After a chance meeting with two gentlemen, promising him fame and fortune playing in a circus, Solomon wakes to find himself in chains, no longer free and being sent to the deep South of America to be sold as a slave.
Unable to tell of his free life, Solomon agrees to live life as Platt and is sold to land owner, Ford, who has a deep affection for the man, even though he works for him. Forced to build a small house under the watchful eye of racist carpenter Tibeats, Solomon finds himself fighting against Tibeats, who immediately wants him dead. Unable to protect him, Ford has no option but to sell Solomon to a cotton farmer, Epps, who has a very different outlook on how to treat a slave. All the while of his incarceration, Solomon has hope that one day he will be a free man again.
This is an important and powerful film that demands to be seen. It’s also very hard going and you will certainly be drawn into it. Do not underestimate its power. Director Steve McQueen has created a masterpiece, a story so strong and to disturbing, it will stay with you long after you have left your seat. It is an epic achievement in cinema and what makes it even more incredible is that it’s based on a true story.
You watch in disgust and amazement that any human being could be treated the way these slaves are. You follow the plight of this innocent man into a world of horror and torture and prejudice and you find yourself feeling guilty, somewhat responsible. McQueen refuses to hold anything back. He wants the audience to emote with Solomon. He wants us to feel guilt, remorse, anger. He wants to push our emotional responses to the limits.
It looks magnificent. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has crafted a beautiful looking film, capturing the wonderment of the landscape along with some images that will stick in your mind for a long time after. John Ridley’s script, based on Solomon Northup’s own memoirs, is faultless, creating a world that seems alien now but having room for atmosphere, well-rounded characters and lines that don’t sound or feel clichéd.
When I say this isn’t an easy film to watch, I really do mean it. There are some moments that will have you squirming in your seats. You will want to look away. This is far more frightening and terrifying than any horror film. Once again due to McQueen’s pitch perfect direction. You want to look away because you feel part of the horror, you feel part of the viciousness on display.
McQueen has filled his cast with the best of the best. From the minor roles up to the leads, everyone fills the screen with perfection. Paul Dano, who I have always regarded as one of the screen’s great young talents, proves it again as the vicious Tibeats. Paul Giamatti makes a brief but impressionable performance as the slave seller who eventually lets Solomon go to Ford. There is an impressive balance between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford and Michael Fassbender’s Epps. Cumberbatch, who seems to be everywhere at the moment, is quietly superb as the sympathetic land owner who cares for his slave and empathises with Solomon, so much so that he feels it is better for him to leave as he cannot protect him. It’s a lovely counterpoint to Fassbender’s evil and violent Epps.
Epps is a monster. A man who sets out targets for his slaves that if they don’t reach them, they are whipped. A man who takes advantage of his power and a man who is as yellow and as cowardly as they come. Fassbender has risked his reputation for playing nice guys to deliver one of the screen’s most vilest villains, without ever once going too far with him. A haunting portrayal and one of his finest roles.Full credit must also go to Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave girl who gets Epps full attentions in more ways than one. It’s a terrific role and one that will certainly put her on the map as future star in the making.
The star of the show, however, is the fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor. As Solomon, he has brought to life a man who needs very little words to express his emotions. This is a towering performance that captivates you the second he appears on-screen and by the end, you are wreck with emotion. There is one scene in which the camera lingers of Ejiofor’s face. Not a word is spoken and yet you feel every inch of pain, every inch of anger, every inch of sorrow. It is a masterclass in performance and one that should be applauded when the awards are handed out.
12 Years A Slave is a monumental achievement and I am almost certain will go down in the cinematic history books as a masterpiece of its time. Like Schindler’s List, it’s a film that demands to be seen but once you have seen it, I doubt very much you will want to watch it again. That’s doesn’t mean I hated it. Far from it. I just don’t think I could handle the emotional draining that I received from watching it again.