12 Years A Slave

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.
"One of this year's must-see films, this is not simply a worthy tribute of a subject too often ignored by Hollywood; it's also a remarkable piece of cinema in its own right."

It has already been noted that 12 Years A Slave is remarkable because it takes on the most potent subject in US history with a foreign director and cast. What is also notable is how modern its sensibilities are. US films addressing slavery in the past have tended either to sideline and romanticise it, like Gone With The Wind, or to present it in a context that makes it seem as if it happened longer ago. Indeed, there's a timelessness about the plantations that implies a world existing outside our own, where the civilised behaviours we mistake for natural goodness do not exist, where the mask has been ripped away. In troubling this illusion, this film reminds us that its subject is still pertinent today.

It pulls this off by presenting us not with characters brought up too see slavery as normal but with a free man who wakes up one day to find himself in chains. Solomon Northup was a real man, a native of Saratoga kidnapped in Washington and taken to Louisiana. He might as well have travelled in time. The story here is based on Northup's own journal; he was one of only a handful of slaves ever to have his own voice heard in debates on the subject, and this lends the film considerable authority. The result is something that feels like part payment of a debt. The least that can be done, in the aftermath of such a crime, is to give those who suffered it control of the narrative.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of the most capable actors of his generation, has been a brilliant footnote in minor films for far too long; here he finally gets the chance to show what he's capable of with a subtle, restrained performance that is all the more powerful for its quietness. As the situation unfolds over many years, it would be unrealistic to expect his character to survive if he showed the assertiveness of a standard Hollywood lead. Instead we get a picture of the inner confidence that comes from growing up with the respect born slaves simply never knew. It armours him against the worst abuses. But every now and then, that armour cracks, as at the terrifying realisation that, were he to escape, he would have to travel hundreds of miles to escape a land where strangers might lynch him on sight. There is no need for the chains in a situation like this. Confronted by the full horror of his own vulnerability, he lapses into the fawning and ingratiation we all like to think we would never do.

Alongside Northup's plight, we see that of numerous others caught up in the same situation. Lupita Nyong'o is outstanding as the housemaid with the bad luck to be pretty and thereby to attract the attentions of Michael Fassbender's vicious slavemaster, Epps. Her raw, tremulous performance often serves as the embodiment of the film's anger. Sarah Paulson is the wife who despises her, who takes out the anger that stems from her own, different helplessness in vicious beatings. The blacks live with the daily terror of violence and murder, the whites with the barely suppressed fear that retribution could be on its way.

There is remarkably little direct violence in the film overall. This enables it to avoid salaciousness and to deliver a much more powerful impact on the few occasions that the whip comes out. It also means that it can concentrate more effectively on the psychological violence of slavery, on the harm done to people by constant degradation and hopelessness. Thanks to the strength of the performances and Sean Bobbitt's beautiful cinematography, it carries us along as it does so, whilst McQueen effectively sustains the pacing despite the meandering nature of the story. In one particularly striking scene, Northup hangs by the neck, barely able to support himself, whilst people come and go in the background, including children playing games, as if nothing were amiss. This illustration of dehumanisation takes us far beyond the usual platitudes and makes the film into something unforgettable.

One of this year's must-see films, this is not simply a worthy tribute of a subject too often ignored by Hollywood; it's also a remarkable piece of cinema in its own right.

Reviewed on: 29 Nov 2013
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12 Years A Slave packshot
A free black man is abducted and sold into slavery.
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Read more 12 Years A Slave reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2

Director: Steve McQueen

Writer: John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Quvenzhané Wallis, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams, Taran Killam, Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy, Bryan Batt, Dwight Henry

Year: 2013

Runtime: 133 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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