Review – 12 Years a Slave

2013, 134 mins, 15, Dir. Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Brad Pitt

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

Exactly one year ago this month audiences were treated to the flamboyant and horribly funny Django Unchained. Up to that point it was one of the most realistic depictions of American slavery ever produced, and was lauded as such. While it remains a truly excellent film, there was always a lingering sense that the definitive film on slavery was yet to be made, one that did away with a revenge western plot, that avoided deliberate humour, something that showed the N-word to be a tangible, terrible, harsh, historical term, as opposed to a mere flippant remark.

It is extremely likely that the definitive film on slavery is 12 Years a Slave. It is, quite simply, astonishing.

Steve McQueen’s film is adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African-American who was kidnapped in 1841 and, as the title suggests, sold into slavery. Northup endures beatings, attempted murder and psychological attack under the control of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and cruel plantation owner. As an audience we rail against the injustice both of Northup’s incarceration and of the entire system of slavery, as the brutality of a very dark period of American history manifests itself onscreen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave

It comes as no surprise that 12 Years a Slave is, at times, very difficult to watch. Within minutes of finding out about his kidnapping, Northup protests that he is a free man, and is promptly beaten with a wooden object so hard that it smashes into pieces. The entire beating happens in a single shot; we are given no respite from what is happening. McQueen’s direction, with Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, is unsparing. Frequently such scenes are presented in very long takes, including one genuinely shocking act of savage violence at the end, effectively the dramatic climax of the story. McQueen, as an Englishman, makes sure we know that he is making a very different film about slavery – a film that American directors have ultimately failed to make over the years.

12 Years a Slave is inevitably driven by its characters, and the impeccable casting ensures a wide array of impressive performances. There isn’t one instance of bad acting, a huge relief given the sobering nature of the source material. Ejiofor’s performance here is undoubtedly his best, with much suggested through his facial expressions; his silent articulations of pain and desperation are difficult to forget. Michael Fassbender, a frequent presence in the films of Steve McQueen, is strikingly hostile and sadistic as Edwin Epps. Epps’ cruelty and instability leads not just to physical punishment of his slaves but also to sexual assault, and Fassbender is frighteningly convincing. So too is Lupita Nyong’o. The suffering and torment of her character Patsey is brilliantly conveyed, and she is deservedly gaining awards recognition for what is (surprisingly) her feature film debut. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

The role of the music is also key to the film’s stratospheric success as a piece of drama. In some senses, it acts as a metaphor for the story itself. Hans Zimmer produces an excellent score which on occasion grows metallic, disturbing, almost modern, particularly when Northup is almost killed by racist farmhands. Yet that is offset by the stirring sound of the Negro spirituals sung by the slaves. The song ‘Roll Jordan Roll’, written especially for the film, is sung at a slave funeral, with Northup eventually joining with his fellow prisoners as part of a collective identity. The message is that even amidst the haunting oppression of the white slavemasters, even in darkness, there is hope.

12 Years a Slave is nothing short of a modern masterpiece. Aside from its intelligent direction, mature and balanced performances, and atmospheric music, a great deal of its impact can be assessed by the emotions it arouses. I felt genuine shock at the treatment of the slaves that superseded mere intellectual empathy, revulsion at the sadistic practices of Fassbender’s plantation owner, and a righteous outrage at the historical perpetrators of these terrible atrocities. In other words, the film achieves a rare level of catharsis, one that left me speechless long after the final shot had elapsed. Nothing in recent years has ever so much deserved to clean up at the Academy Awards. 12 Years a Slave is upsetting and exhausting. But it is tremendous proof that the quality of cinema has not declined with the distractions of CGI and 3D, that filmmakers are some of the most important people in our society, and that through dramatic presentation they can so overwhelmingly bring to light historical issues that still have bearing on the material and psychological lives of people in the twenty-first century.

The first shot of the film.
The first shot of the film.

10/10

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Review – War Horse

Review – War Horse

2011, 146 mins, 12A, Dir. Steven Spielberg, starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston

Warning! This review may contain minor spoilers (only of set-pieces, not of the plot/ending).

War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of War Horse is one of two films released in the past year that have thrown you back to his career in the 1980s, the other being The Adventures of Tintin. After a flurry of more serious and dark-hearted films (which nonetheless retained at least a few tendons of Spielberg’s more playful senses) alongside the crushingly disappointing fourth Indiana Jones installment, 2011 has been a great return for the director. War Horse retains the sense of adventure and emotional drama that is characteristic of the early works of Spielberg, not coming out with many surprises, but certainly an enjoyable experience for most.

Based principally on the 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and gaining inspiration from the far more successful 2007 stage play, War Horse is an intriguing story of a farmboy in the early 20th century who, after training a horse that comes into his possession, is shocked to find that it has been registered to help with the war effort. The young boy, named Albert, is conscripted into the army and tries to find his beloved friend in the midst of the devasting First World War. The story of the injustices of war and the undying hope of one young lad is Spielbergian in itself and it’s quite obvious that he is the man for the job.

Despite this, a sizeable amount of Albert’s journey (especially to the war front) is left out of the final film, which still stands at nearly two and a half hours. For an extended period midway we see and hear nothing from the boy and thus a certain portion of the emotional effect (considering his young age in the story) is lost. It is worth noting, however, that the film is not necessarily Albert’s; it is Joey the horse’s. We follow his journey through the hellish battlegrounds of war, from a fatal cavalry charge to his painful entanglement in between the British and German trenches. He is our main protagonist, our main lead, and we vouch for him, although Albert’s role overall is somehow lost in translation.

Never mind. The acting is superb. Young newcomer Jeremy Irvine gives a confident and gripping performance while Peter Mullan and Emily Watson provide great support as his mother and father. Worth mentioning are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston who, while only appearing in a few scenes, are utterly convincing as the young, idealistic British army officers. But Spielberg is the real star here. After forty years in the business he is certainly an expert in mise-en-scène; every shot is immaculately framed alongside some beautiful transitioning with the help of regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski.

While the stage play is more stripped-down and raw, the film is on a much greater scale with its epic battle scenes and rich score by John Williams, his best work in a while. The director is no stranger to war violence as we all know and War Horse does not shy away from it. In fact, it’s remarkably gritty for its rating, not very gory, but certainly a tough watch in parts. The camera doesn’t flinch during the punishment of two German deserters; this style is very much reminiscent of Spielberg’s uncompromisingly brutal Schindler’s List. War Horse, then, is lighter Spielberg with darker elements, as oppose to the films in the mid to late nineties that proved him to be more than just a popcorn director.

War Horse is an excellent film. Its virtuoso directing, marvellous acting and set-pieces form a film that harks back to the restless adventure of E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has a strong emotional core and is bound to be loved by audiences, although its story somewhat lacks in consistency; the stage play is superior on that front.

4 stars out of 5.