ImageFrom the title alone you know that this film is going to be pretty grim viewing. However, for anyone concerned that 12 Years a Slave might be worthy, but not cinematically fulfilling, then I would urge them to think again. This is not a perfect movie, but it is a very fine and important one.

The story begins in New York, where we encounter the talented violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He meets two men who offer him a two-week job on an out-of-town tour. We next see Northup sharing a fine meal with the two men who are clearly plying him with drink. Sometime later Northup wakes up in chains in a darkened room, and his miserable ordeal has begun. He is taken to a slave market, where he is sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford turns out to be relatively enlightened, and when Northup devises a scheme for efficiently transporting logs down a waterway Ford presents him with a violin as a mark of gratitude.

However, Northup is harrassed by the racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who eventually rounds up his white friends to lynch Northup. Northup only survives this episode due to the intervention of Ford, but Ford explains that his own life will be endangered if he continues to protect him. Thus, Northup is sold on to another slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who puts his slaves to work picking cotton. Epps believes that the Bible gives him the right not just to own, but to abuse, slaves, and he forces his desire on the slave-girl Patsey (Lupita N’yongo). In this terrible environment Northup must hide his intelligence in order to survive, especially as Epps becomes ever more demented.

As most potential viewers of 12 years will undoubtedly agree that slavery is a bad thing, one might ask just why it is that this film is worth seeing. The answer to this is that it is one thing to intellectually know that slavery bad, but it is another thing to understand at a visceral level just how bad slavery is. With that understanding, perhaps, can come an even greater appreciation of the anger felt by the descendants of slaves in western societies who nonetheless remain victims of discrimination. Two moments in the film stand out as particularly brutal. In one, Patsy is whipped so severely that the weals on her back could only have looked worse if this had been shot in 3D. Arguably even more distressing than this, is a scene in which Northup is strung from a tree in such a way that the only way to avoid strangulation is to stand on tip-toes for hours. Whilst he does this we see people going about their business in the background as though nothing were untoward.

There are a number of performances in the film that have been rightly praised as outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly convincing as Solomon Northup, using his face more than words to convey the inner turmoil of a man who must suppress his intelligence and his rage. Lupita N’yongo as Patsey likewise shows us the utter desperation of a woman who would rather die than suffer further abuse and humiliation at the hands of Epps. And Fassbender himself, as Epps, gives us a portrait of a man for whom slavery appears to provide a vehicle for the deranged expression of his own inner demons.

If the film has shortcomings, then one of these must be the third-act appearance of Brad Pitt, whose superstar presence is a real distraction at that point. Secondly, in terms of dramatic tension, it is perhaps a little churlish to criticise a film for staying true to the real-life story (I have not read Northup’s own book, but I believe this is the case). However, most films present us with a series of emotional ups and downs that keep tension alive. In 12 Years, by contrast, things start bad, get worse, and then get really worse again. And because most people will know that 12 Years is based on the real-life Northup’s account of his ordeal, we also therefore know that the movie Northup must survive his ordeal. In this respect, I did feel that the film, while unflinchingly brutal, nonetheless lacked a certain degree of dramatic tension.

Such quibbles aside, however, with so few Hollywood movies touching on the topic of slavery 12 Years really is an outstanding achievement.

Rating: 9/10

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