12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (played with unremitting intensity by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a ‘free negro’, who is illegally enslaved and then sold first into the relatively benign hands of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then into the decidedly malign clutches of bible-bashing sadist, Epps, played by Michael Fassbender.
Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame)’s direction is as impressive as ever, and his style is very evident throughout. In one stunning scene, McQueen depicts a lynching against a backdrop of the everyday affairs of the plantation: this marriage of evil and banality is seldom seen outside of films dealing with the Holocaust. In his now trademark ‘unflinching gaze’ style, McQueen holds this shot, and holds it beyond belief, forcing an indelible image upon the viewer; an image that will surely be regarded as one of the most potent in modern cinema.
With few supporting characters, the success of the film rests heavily on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s shoulders, and he rises above this challenge in a stirring performance which mixes power with restraint and subtlety. Much of Ejiofor’s performance comes from his eyes, which eloquently express his suffering and burden of intelligence; McQueen makes the most of this by employing many long, close shots. Particularly remarkable in Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup is the way in which he alters his stance to suit his changed circumstances: as a free man, Northup strides with the tall, confident posture of a wealthy, educated gentleman; but as a slave, he hunches over, his walk now the ungainly plod of a defeated human being.
Despite its strengths, 12 Years a Slave is often a very difficult film to enjoy. The subject matter, combined with McQueen’s unrelenting tendency to dwell on each scene makes for a harrowing experience; the physical and psychological violence is often difficult to witness, to the extent that many will want to avert their eyes or even leave the cinema. The greatest brutality in the film is directed towards Patsey, played all-too convincingly by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who is the object of slaver Epp’s desire, and it is this sexualised violence driven by Fassbender’s character that is particularly disturbing. To make matters worse, the catharsis on which we have come to rely in many Hollywood films depicting such injustice is not to be found here, so that part of you craving some Django-esque retribution will be left disappointed. And angry!
The film is not without faults, either; for one thing, at 134 minutes, it would do well to be 15-20 minutes shorter. Additionally, while broadly very effective, some of Hans Zimmer’s score sounds out of place, particularly his ominous ‘foghorn of doom’ technique, which is probably better left to the more thriller-orientated Inception soundtrack. Furthermore, Brad Pitt’s extended cameo in the last five minutes is remarkably jarring, and serves only to draw the viewer out of the reality of the film.
12 Years raises an important question as to the purpose of film, and art as a whole: is the picture a failure because it does not provide an ‘enjoyable’ experience? For most people, enjoyment of art is a high priority – particularly with cinema – and many will struggle with this film for that reason. However, good art should transcend entertainment; it should affect us deeply and move us just a little bit forward, and in this respect, 12 Years is a success.
12 Years is a brilliant film – a well-constructed, beautifully shot and terrifically acted testament to the power of cinema. There is no doubt it deserves every Oscar for which it is nominated: Steve McQueen has yet again proved himself to be an asset to British film.