12 Years a Slave Review
Little to do with entertainment, even less about enjoyment, mostly just a test of endurance
In the first two cinemagoing weeks of the year what have we learned from three of the films nominated for Best Picture?That some politicians are corrupt, and that con-men can’t be trusted. That New York stock brokers in the 80s were largely cocaine-fuelled money-hungry sociopaths? That slavery was bad? Sorry, I mean, really, really bad. It’s difficult to know what precisely the intention was behind these movies. Their entertainment value is dubious – there’s only so much time you want to spend in the company of unpleasant people – and there’s certainly no lessons on offer, nor even a hint of closure. Or satisfaction. Sure, here there’s hope for that one slave, but what about the other few million? So what, indeed, is the point? Let's find out...
12 Years a Slave is about... well, I think you can figure that part out, surely? Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a New York-born free man, with a job, a wife and two kids is kidnapped and taken south to New Orleans, where he’s sold into slavery. There he gets beaten, verbally abused, lynched, beaten some more, beaten some more, and beaten some more. Ad nauseum. As the years pass he is passed from a relatively compassionate plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a vicious, bible-thumping sadist plantation owner (Michael Fassbender), who believes that God has sanctioned his mistreatment of the slaves, which involves beating and even regularly raping them.
There’s no denying that this is a Steve McQueen film. Sorry, not that Steve McQueen, but the other guy. The new and upcoming director who, despite his best efforts, will probably always be mistaken – by name – for the iconic actor who came before him. The new Steve McQueen has done two prior films that you should already know about. Certainly if you’ve seen them, you won’t have forgotten them. Hunger was about the Irish hunger strike protest. It was an hour and half of watching Michael Fassbender starve himself to death. Shame was about sexual addiction. It was 101 minutes of watching Michael Fassbender masturbate in office toilets, watch online pornography, have sex with strangers, have sex with prostitutes, and basically have sex with anything in sight. 12 Years a Slave develops the pattern slightly, dedicating over two hours to a story about Michael Fassbender beating and raping slaves, but allowing somebody else to be the central character (even though we all know that it’s really about Fassbender’s character – the true symbol of all white slave owners).
McQueen and Fassbender remain true to their previous, masterful filmmaking form.
There’s also no denying that, as with both of his previous projects, McQueen elicits out of Fassbender the best acting of his career. He is on fire in 12 Years a Slave, well probably fire and brimstone, and he remains, without a shadow of a doubt, the best element of the film – and the one most deserving of an Oscar nod. In fact, almost all of the performances are excellent: Cumberbatch continues his run of convincingly atypical roles; Paul Dano continues his run of trademark scumbag snakes; debut actress Lupita Nyong’o torturously earns her Oscar nod; and Brad Pitt? Well, he was an executive producer, and, by all accounts, the biggest reason for why the film got made, so obviously he got a choice cameo.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, the 12-year slave himself, gives his all in the lead role, and deserves much acclaim, although I personally find that his manner has always been overly earnest in almost every film he has been in (he somehow appears to do the majority of his acting with that furrowed brow and shocked look in his eyes), and it just happens that this perfectly suits the character here, rather than a case of him eliciting a fresh, new and previously unseen side to his skills. Perhaps those familiar with Ejiofor in everything from Redbelt to The Shadow Line will note the same similarities, although there’s no denying that fresh eyes are likely to find him utterly captivating and a superb choice for the lead.
So, a worthy subject, and great performances. Hell, the film even looks stunning, with sweeping cinematography that presents the South in a way that it probably never has and never will look, but which would make for an impressive series of picture postcards. Indeed, it is truly difficult to find a way to criticise 12 Years a Slave. It’s one of those films that probably does deserve Best Picture – or at least a nomination. One of those films that I can easily understand would receive near-universal acclaim, hitting numerous Top 10 lists for many.
You should see it. It might even be the case that you have to see it. But I’m still not quite sure whether you need to see it.
The trouble is that there’s nothing really in 12 Years a Slave which we didn’t already know. Some might even argue that often borders on being little more than Oscar-calibre torture-porn, revelling in the relentless, 12-year-long pain endured by one man. It’s dangerous when a movie so clinically eschews all forms of entertainment value – as McQueen’s prior two films have similarly done – and it may well leave many moviegoers with a very bitter taste in their mouths. Not all films need to be pleasant experiences – most of the best are tense, tough pieces of art which get their claws right under your skin and don’t let go. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t really attempt to get under your skin, it behaves instead as if it has already earned a right to be there, spending the duration peeling away at you until you’re flayed to the bone. It’s a shame, in a way, because even Tarantino’s Django Unchained managed to masterfully traverse the same territory – albeit in fictionalised form – and yet did so whilst remaining utterly entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable throughout.
Yes, yet again McQueen has done it. Produced a masterful film about a worthy subject, with powerhouse performances – headlined by Fassbender – and both shot and directed with consummate skill and undeniable talent. And also utterly impossible to enjoy. It’s so painfully, unflinchingly unpleasant that you simply have to endure. If you can, the reward is being able to say that you’ve seen one of the must-see films of the year.
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