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Easily the best film of the London Film Festival, Steve McQueen, one of the most exciting talents of British cinema, continues his rapid directorial rise with a film about a man forced into slavery in nineteenth-century America
In the last few years, Steve McQueen has gone from being a celebrated visual artist to one of the most exciting talents in British cinema. The harrowing nature of IRA drama, Hunger, combined with its bold visuals, dramatically announced McQueen to the film world along with his star, Michael Fassbender. A remarkably assured and arresting debut feature, it saw the director claim the Caméra d’Or at Cannes and was followed-up by the similarly provocative Shame. Once again starring Fassbender, this time as a sex-addict, it represented a foray into a slightly more conventional narrative, without relinquishing his aesthetic prowess.
To say that 12 Years a Slave is a further progression of his directorial abilities would be putting the matter lightly. McQueen’s third film not only marks another phase of his cinematic evolution; it is a vital and unrelenting masterpiece that demands to be seen by one and all. It is easy to understand why many are already tipping the film as an awards front-runner and its worthy sensibility, period detail and cast of British thesps lend themselves to Oscar recognition. In fact, from the trailer this may seem like a strange choice for McQueen – appearing to lack the austerity and raw punch of his previous work and pandering, perhaps, to the Academy. That reading could not be more wrong.
The complete brutality of this trade, and the treatment of these people sits very much at the forefront of the film alongside the sensational Chitewel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. There are horrific lashings, frequent beatings, demeaning psychological abuse, and one unforgettable sequence in which Solomon is hung from a tree and left to swing. His feet are just able to touch the ground, and as he sways in the wind, his toes scraping the mud as he gasps for air, life on the plantation continues behind him as normal. Whereas such torments may have been used as focal points, here they provide context for a hellish existence and his emotive resolve.
The screenplay, penned by John Ridley, is adapted from the account written by Northup in 1853 of his twelve years in slavery. He was a free-born black man living in nineteenth century Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished fiddler, he accepted a job offer to play with a troupe in Washington D.C. but whilst there was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana via New Orleans. Has name was taken from him – re-christened Platt – and he learned the only way to survive was to keep his head down.
It’s a heart-wrenching story right from the off with this urbane gentlemen callously abducted with no way to force his freedom or contact his family. Following his journey through various plantations, McQueen’s focus never leaves Northup, and Ejiofor is remarkably capable of shouldering such a heavy burden with supreme aplomb. He imbues the character with unbreakable humanity as to be almost impossible amidst the torrent of viciousness and indignity he suffers. The few moments in which he allows himself to slip, to breakdown, are truly devastating.
Woven into Northup’s story are a variety of other characters who challenge and explore other aspects of slavery. This is not purely one man’s story, but the story of one man amongst a thoughtful and intelligent examination of the wider issue. Several different plantation owners are encountered; Benedict Cumberbatch’s intelligent, if green, Master Ford serves as a stark contrast to Michael Fassbender’s vile turn as Master Ebbs, known for breaking his slaves. One man actually listens to the intelligent ‘Platt’ whilst the other humiliates and assaults his ‘property’ regularly despite having a complex but unhealthy sexual fixation on his most productive slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Others also cross his path from the truly malicious, to the ultimately heroic with Paul Dano, Sarah Paulsen, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt all members of a uniformly excellent cast. Together they give texture to a subject with many different sides and present not only the horror of slavery, but the effects that it can have on those involved.
Those arriving at 12 Years a Slave expecting the same artistic visuals as in his previous films may be somewhat disappointed that here, McQueen has dialed it down – in doing so, though, he has enabled himself to mature as a filmmaker. In this film the bravura shots have been incorporated into a greater understanding of their potential narrative attributes. There a fewer shots that stand out when considered on their own, though that is not to say that Sean Bobbit’s photography is anything less than sublime. What has been utilised to maximum effect is the film’s sound design which manages the unlikely task of creating heart-pounding tension with a paddle steamer, along with adding terrifying clout to the – almost entirely out of shot – beatings. Ultimately, McQueen had put the material before himself and serves it with his undoubted ability.
The combined effect of this screenplay, the performances, the visuals and the sound is, in a word, overwhelming. 12 Years a Slave is an endurance test of sorts. It is beautiful, exquisitely crafted, but as difficult and harrowing a watch as the director’s debut and then some. When Solomon reaches his lowest ebb, it feels as though your stomach is attempting to consume you from the inside – your eyes will try to stop you seeing his pain despite the inability to look away. It is never wise to describe a film as definitive, but on the subject of American slavery this is leagues ahead of the competition at present; it’s painful, it’s hard work, it’s gruelling, and astounding. It may not have been the most enjoyable film at the London Film Festival, but this was easily the best and could be the best for some time to come yet.
About Ben Nicholson
A compulsive cinephile, Ben fell in love with film through repeated viewings of Michael Jackson being transformed into a werewolf behind the scenes of John Landis' seminal video for Thriller. This passion has manifested itself in his consumption of movies and the enjoyment derived from reading, discussion and writing about cinema which can all be found on New Urbanite. His favourite films include The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran, and Last Year in Marienbad - to name but a few.