Friday, 8 November 2013

REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

Based on his three works, Steve McQueen, the Turner-prize winning artist, has made it clear his films not for the weak-stomached. Hunger, Shame and now 12 Years a Slave are all tours de force tackling very relevant and pressing subject matter. His latest is his most accomplished work, tackling the seriously weighty matter of slavery in nineteenth century America with the story of Solomon Northup based on his own 1855 biographical account. 

Solomon Northup was a free man and accomplished violinist living in New York, who was convincingly duped by two conmen who offered him a touring gig before drugging and selling him into slavery. The initial setup is done speedily before Northup’s harrowing plight takes up most of the narrative. His twelve years of slavery is a truly horrific tale, and follows him through three different households during the following decade or so. He starts out being stripped of his name, now Platt, before working the plantation of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher who seems constantly at battle with his own tendency to keep slaves, and although a fairly kind master by comparison to most, Solomon’s time with the Fords is marred by the brutal overseers. It is here his intelligence is exposed when proving it possible to map out routes on the swamps, as well as his prodigious talent for the fiddle. In order to remain alive, he has to crush any outward signs of intelligence or ability – no slave would survive long if they were found out to be literate, let alone an intelligent engineer.

Solomon’s time with William Ford is cut short by a brutal act of retribution from one particular overseer, and he finds himself transported to work the plantation of Edwin Epps (William Fassbender) and his wife Mary – both cruel and violent slave-owners. It is here where the majority of the action takes place, as Solomon slowly tries to overcome his inhibitions and accept his traumatic existence picking cotton and getting flogged. Each day the cotton is weighed in, with commendation for the best picker, and floggings for the worst. The most accomplished slave, Patsey, a slender and young woman, always has the biggest load, but despite this she has the hardest time, being the object of Edwin’s affections and in result, Mary’s fierce jealousy. A snippet of her story is also told through the film, but like many, she remains collateral damage of a disgraceful pastime, a footnote from a period of hate. 

A short-lived relief comes in the form of a supposed reckoning from God – when all the cotton is eaten by cotton worms, with fire and brimstone Edwin sends them off to a neighbouring plantation until penance and atonement have breathed a new lease of life on the cotton fields. McQueen has some stunning cinematography during the days on this other plantation – one particular scene starts (as the film does) with the slaves standing in a line with tools in hand and the eight-foot crops jutting above them – it’s a mesmeric shot of such sorrow and beauty. Another sees a dolly shot moving through the crops, as leaves flap and bristle against the camera as they get deeper into the field before revealing an opening where men and women are hard at work – McQueen is a true auteur, his films all so distinctively his. 

The tale is of man’s awe-inspiring journey into the belly of hell, and how he came out the other side. Chiwetel Ejiofor was pitch-perfect casting for the Northup, playing the lead with such restraint and passion and never overacting the part. His ability to convey raw emotion in his eyes is startling, and his character arc is so masterfully captured that you feel like you are watching a true artiste at work. The same can be said of Fassbender, now a steadfast regular for McQueen; Edwin Epps is a repulsive hypocrite, always preaching the word but never living by it. Fassbender is one of the best actors working, and Edwin is a villain to go down in the annals of time – never does he become a caricature villain, it’s his evil threats spoken in hushed-voice rather than his brazen actions which are most haunting and memorable. If the Oscars weren’t so political and preordained, it’d be easy to predict that both leads would get a nomination, as should McQueen’s film, but best not hold your breath. Not only does 12 Years a Slave work as a fine film with world-class performances, but it could also be a reference point for a history student, as it is so authentic and realistic in its portrayal of slavery and the ramifications (or lack thereof) for everyone around. What a fine accomplishment for Steve McQueen, I can’t wait to see what he lined up for us next.  [5/5]

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