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12 Years A Slave



12_years_a_slave_posterReleased: 10th January 2014

Directed By: Steve Mcqueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Last year, we were served a provocative and audacious depiction of slavery through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino with ‘Django Unchained’. Avoiding such potential flippancy and opting for a more conventional yet no less bruising account of a horrid and well documented period in American history, British director Steve Mcqueen follows up the critically acclaimed double-header of ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’ chronicling the remarkable injustice towards one well respected figure of the black community.

Ripped straight from the autobiographical works of the man in question, we begin in 1841 Saratoga, New York. Highly regarded for his skills as a violinist and settled with an adoring wife and two children, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a man on first impressions deserving of great custom. A chance encounter with an enthusiastic duo by the name of Brown and Hamilton (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam respectively) may initially promise further prosperity with the obtaining of his musical prowess, yet is the horrific catalyst for a downside in fortunes.

Drugged and awoken to the darkness and the shackles no solitary race should become acquainted to, Solomon despairingly laments the betrayal of trust as he is sold into slavery. Reluctantly embracing the name of Platt bestowed upon him by despicable slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti), his ‘services’ are soon bandied around to white plantation owners that range from the slyly sympathetic (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford) to the relentless villainy of the alcohol-fuelled Edwin Epps (regular Mcqueen collaborator Michael Fassbender). In attempting to preserve his own life as well as protect the sufferers around him, most notably Lupita Nyong’o’s ultra-sensitive Patsey, Solomon faces an often desperate plight to survive in the vein hope his freedom will be once again ‘granted’.

Building a fierce reputation for uncompromising visions and tapping into difficult subject matters, Mcqueen captures the ferocious gung-ho brutality of its time juxtaposed in turn with an unflinching stillness of the camera that whilst proves an agonising endurance test for its audience, inevitably pales into insignificance when exposed to such powerful truth.

Mid-shots of men hung gasping for breath with fellow slaves walking on as the abnormality of the ‘act’ is chillingly diluted. The manipulation and mental warfare that encapsulates many of its unforgiving depictions of ‘lashing’. Bar the occasional delve into melodrama with a score that sporadically feels too intrusive considering the material, the film rarely fails to stun. For better or worse.

The fleeting on-screen grace/disgraces from Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti make their mark, with the film belonging predominantly to Ejiofor, whose portrayal of Solomon Northup is nothing short of outstanding. Much of the pent-up emotion confined to his inner depths mirroring his plight, the inevitable outpouring deftly avoids cheap sentimentality and devastates through the sheer potency in his performance. A monstrous creation being an understatement, Fassbender’s Epps provides another masterful performance under the watchful eye of Mcqueen that brims with complexity, not least in the peculiar relationships he shares with his headstrong wife (brilliantly played by Sarah Poulson) and Patsy, heart-wrenchingly realised by a committed Nyong’o.

Tough yet often tremendous, Mcqueen’s ’12 Years A Slave’ is a history lesson that for all its unsettling tendencies, proves essential viewing.













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