Film review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE, from Built For Speed

Director Steve McQueen’s films often confront and disturb the audience with their depiction of characters driven to physical and emotional extremes.  Hunger saw imprisoned IRA member Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) forced to the edge of starvation and mental breakdown while Shame saw sex addict Brandon (also Fassbender) held hostage by his uncontrollable desires. In McQueen’s latest film, 12 Years a Slave, African American man Solomon Northup endures harrowing physical and psychological abuse at the hands of inhumane plantation bosses just prior to the American civil war.  As in McQueen’s other films, this depiction of human suffering makes for an uncomfortable but revelatory cinema experience.

Based on Northup’s 1853 biography, the film introduces Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a free man and renowned violinist living with his wife and two young children in Saratoga New York in 1841.  Having been lured to a meeting with two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who offered work in a touring show, Solomon is drugged, abducted and sold into slavery in Georgia.  Forced to toil in cotton fields and traded to various wealthy white men, he winds up at the plantation of the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  As Solomon attempts to stand up to Epps’ appalling treatment of his slaves – particularly Epp’s sexual abuse of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) – he’s forced to endure appalling retribution.

This film’s depiction of the slave trade is a terrifying reminder of the depths to which society can descend.  This is a world governed not just by physical brutality and the individual malevolence of slave owners like Epps’ but by a perverse economic, political and legal system that transforms people into commodities.  Within this world Solomon, much like Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 is forced to deny his identity or face life-threatening physical abuse. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb as he convincingly captures the disbelief and horror of a man forced to watch his identity disintegrate. The supporting cast are also uniformly excellent with Fassbender genuinely menacing as the leering, arrogant and pathologically violent Epps. Despite occasionally turning into a stereotypical scenery-chewing villain, Fassbender redeems himself after his recent cardboard cut-out performance in Ridley Scott’s awful The CounselorLupita Nyong’o is terrific as Patsey giving her an intensity, bitterness and sense of barely suppressed rage.  As sympathetic plantation owner Ford, Benedict Cumberbatch captures the anguish of a fundamentally good man forced to comply with a corrupt world.   Paul Dano also confirms his credentials as the go to guy for menacing creeps with his stunning performance as a vile field boss.

Director Steve McQueen depicts a world of surprising and saddening contradictions. Ford saves Solomon’s life but sells him to the notoriously harsh Epps when it becomes financially necessary.  Brad Pitt’s character Bass, who appears very late in the film, seems to be an enlightened emancipator but still uses the “n” word.  McQueen underscores these moral contradictions with his startling depiction of the American South’s physical environment, a world of ravishing bucolic vistas but also unforgiving heat that often proved unbearable for the slaves forced to labour in the cotton fields. 

Emotionally gut-wrenching, 12 Years a Slave is difficult viewing but rather than a turgid wallow in human misery it’s a gripping story of a man’s desperate bid to cling to his dignity and identity.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Steve McQueen.

Release date: 30th Jan 2014.

Running time:  134 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 


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