12 Years A Slave (2014) – Review

I read an interview with Steve McQueen recently where he mentioned how he shot 12 Years A Slave in just 35 days with one camera.  Shooting any feature film single camera in such a short space of time is an impressive feat, but 12 Years A Slave is  no ordinary film.  It’s a sprawling historical epic depicting slavery in the American south; a true story full of deep themes, powerful images and an enormously talented cast.  In other words, Steve McQueen is something of a genius.

We’ve come to expect a certain bleakness from McQueen’s work after the harrowing depths of Hunger and Shame.  That’s of course not to say he’s depressed and enjoys spreading his misery to others, but rather, that he loves to explore very raw, secular themes and genuine human emotions.  12 Years A Slave is no different in that respect – albeit with a dash of Oscar-friendly true story-ness thrown in – but the central principles remain the same.  It explores the inner recesses of a breaking spirit with a collage of bleak and unsavoury images, from unflattering nudity to prolonged shots of a lashed back, leading to more than one occasion where it’s genuinely tough to keep your eyes on the screen.  Yet such gruesome shots are adversely different to that of something like the Saw films; there’s nothing gratuitous or OTT, it’s just so brutally real.

Once in a while a film comes along where every single frame is just perfect.  The way it’s set up, the way it’s lit, everything within it.  In 12 Years A Slave, the thought and meticulous care that’s gone into each shot is palpable – one would, of course, imagine every shot would be ultra painstakingly planned for a month-long shoot, but it’s more than that.  It’s something in the way McQueen moves the camera or leaves it still, the way he hangs on shots that wouldn’t usually be hung on, to break us a little bit more.  It’s the way he shows us the real, human reactions with a motionless camera rather than succumbing to a traditional cinematic payoff.  One of the most powerful moments in the film is Platt (Solomon’s slave name) hanging from a rope using the end of his toes to keep himself from strangling, in a shot which last a good two minutes.  No dialogue, no movement, no particular direction.  Just the suffering of an innocent human being as others casually go about their business.  It’s these kind of un-intruded moments that open us up to the realities of what the film is depicting and remind us why it’s such an important story to be told.

We get a buffet of fantastic, well-known actors popping up, unafraid to be cast in a darker light by playing utterly despicable characters – not least of all the brilliant Michael Fassbender, bettering his performance in Shame – and, perhaps, every performance to date – as cruel, volatile slave owner Edwin Epps.  The quality of Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave lies in his subtleties.  It’s when he isn’t doing things that he’s the most frightening; with just a prolonged stare he makes our fingers and toes curl because we just never know what he’s going to do or when he’s going to do it.  It’s an intricate and nuanced performance that perhaps looks straight-forward but only because he makes it so – it’s actually one of the most difficult things to do as an actor.  Fassbender just gets better and better, and I’d be astounded if he didn’t take home a gold statue for this.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant, too, in what must have been an immensely straining role.  Not only does he take the long journey through increasingly powerful emotions, portraying a real man separated from his family whose body and spirit was chipped away at piece by piece by his oppressors, but he’s in pretty much every frame of the film.  Eyes are the one definitive give away for true emotion, and there’s an actual, bona fide sadness in Ejiofor’s eyes.  You look into them and you can feel his suffering, even if he’s doing nothing but look right back at us.  When a moment like that is amalgamated with Hans Zimmer’s beautifully sorrowful score, there’s little more to do than swallow hard and reflect.

12 Years A Slave is not your average night out at the cinema.  It’s a tough, gruelling watch that takes a certain frame of mind and won’t be easy to revisit, but it’s equally an extraordinary, near faultless piece of filmmaking that will stay with you for a long, long time.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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