Saturday, 18 January 2014

12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a state born, free negro living in Washington D.C with his family. Whilst his wife and children are away, Solomon meets two men who offer him a role in the circus as a violinist. However they immediately kidnap him, eventually leading him into a wrongful life of slavery. With a group of other slaves, Solomon is moved to a plantation in New Orleans, under the new identity of Platt. With the helpful and friendly overview of plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon eventually begins to fit in, but is soon moved to a new plantation under Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a more evil trader. He soon befriends fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), but life in this plantation is much harder than he could have thought. 

Slavery is undeniably a dark time in humanity's past. There have been quite a few films about it, but not many tackle it with full determination and attempt to make it real. Last year's Django Unchained took a graphic look at slavery, but with a more comedic and action packed view. Here, however, director Steve McQueen has finally given us a look at slavery without flinching. 12 Years A Slave is brutal. It is graphic, and it is real. Based on a horrific memoir of a true story, it's difficult to believe these events actually happened. There will be points you can't watch, maybe even points you feel physically sick at what you're seeing, but without doubt, 12 Years A Slave is one of the very best films of the 21st Century. 

Playing a role like this cannot be an easy challenge, but Ejiofor takes this and makes it look easy. Not only does he shine in the more dramatic, bigger scenes, but primarily in his quieter, more emotional moments. A scene in which he begs with a Canadian laborer opposed to slavery is a standout, as is his reaction when landed with a seemingly impossible task of torturing a fellow slave. Ejiofor is undeniably the star of this film, but he is surrounded by a plethora of almost equally as impressive co-stars. Fassbender is genuinely terrifying as evil slave driver Epps, and Cumberbatch (despite his fairly brief amount of screen time) also manages the role well. However, second best lands with Nyong'o. In what has got to be the gutsiest, most impressive on-screen debut possibly ever, she is simply superb as Patsey. The emotion you will feel for her character is sensational. 

One element in which 12 Years... also shines is its relentlessness. McQueen is fearless in showing us the graphic details of what slavery does. There are close ups of a whip impacting a tortured slave's back, an extended rape scene, and, probably most effective, an exceedingly lengthy shot of Solomon hung by his neck from a tree, with just his toes on the ground keeping him alive. This shot is the one that had the biggest effect on me; this was the shot that lingered in my mind when trying to sleep that night. Solomon stands there, just about keeping himself upright and alive, while the rest of the plantation carry on their daily routines behind him, as if he isn't even there, in that situation. The cinematography is just incredible. 

The way McQueen has decided to film 12 Years... is also something to behold. We linger on shots of backgrounds after the action has finished, before cutting to the next scene. We are presented with bizarre, disorientating close ups of particular items; the white water behind a slave ship, the burning embers of a letter that Solomon is forced to immediately burn (perhaps metaphorical of the burning of his hope). 12 Years... is packed with stunning imagery from beginning to end; it is beautiful to look at in its nicer scenes, a stark contrast to some of the more brutal moments. The effect this has is extraordinary. 

12 Years A Slave is simply a film that everyone must see. I have never seen a film quite like this. It's relentlessness to show us everything, yet surprisingly subtle in its message. The contrast between brutal close ups, but equally as effective long shots. McQueen's incredible direction is largely at hold for this, but equal praise must be awarded to the actors. I would be both shocked and appalled if Ejiofor and Nyong'o don't leave the Oscars with awards in their hands. The screening room I saw this in was fairly packed, meaning I could gauge the audience response by what was going on around me. People gasped, people groaned, and people turned their heads away. In its darker moments, 12 Years A Slave has an astonishing effect. But, in its quieter, more subtle moments, this film truly excels. A clever combination of conventional , historic cinema and art-house; 12 Years A Slave is not a film, it is a piece of art. 

To Summarise: Incredibly well acted, beautifully shot, stunningly directed and brutally effective, "12 Years A Slave" is a masterclass in modern cinema. 

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