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12 Years a Slave - Film Review

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by Gill Oscar (subscribe)
'So many worlds, so much to do, so little done, such things to be'. (Tennyson)
Published December 22nd 2013
150 years in the making
With seven Golden Globe nominations and a swag of awards already in the bag, "12 Years a Slave" seems like a no-brainer for a movie night. Can I say I loved it? No, but the filmmakers weren't seeking to make a film to love. I can say that it was food for thought. I suspect that's a response Director Steve McQueen would be pleased with.

12 Years a Slave
From this...

The plot line is straight forward, as the title suggests. An accomplished musician, Solomon Northrup leaves his genteel home in New York State after an invitation to join a well paid gig in Washington. After celebrating a successful tour in style, he wakes to find himself in chains, soon to be sold to the highest bidder. For the next twelve years he is forced to live as a slave.

12 years a slave
. .. to this

Cinematography, production values and acting performance are all of the quality you'd expect from a critically acclaimed film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Solomon Northup, capably handles the load of being in pretty much every scene of the film. He is supported by a large cast of quality actors, each in the film for relatively short periods of the 134 minute running time as they cross Northup's path.

12 Years a Slave
Powerhouse performances from (l-r) Michael Fassbender, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor

For me, the film came alive with the entrance of the always wonderful Paul Giamatti as Freeman, who 'purchased' and onsold Northup into slavery. Michael Fassbender deserves all the praise he is getting for his finely cadenced portrayal of Master Epps, Northup's second 'owner', who is as callous to his wife as to his human 'property'. Alfre Woodward sparkles in a cameo role as Mistress Shaw, wife of a slaveowner who goes against societal norms. And we'll certainly see more of Kenyan-born, Yale-educated Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey, the beautiful slavegirl whose experience parallels Mistress Shaw's likely backstory, yet ends in markedly different circumstances.

"12 Years a Slave" is based on the real Solomon Northrup's account of that period, published in 1853. I expected it to be emotionally harrowing to watch, but found it strangely unaffecting much of the time. In Hollywood hands, the memoir may have been massaged into a standard three act storyline, with character arcs and dramatic highs and lows accentuated to create a heart-tugging cinema experience. However here Palme D'Or winner McQueen's art house sensibility and British observer status is married with Brad Pitt's /Plan B Productions's social justice orientation. The result is more akin to a dramatized biography, with the camera bearing witness and leaving viewers to respond as we will.

A moment of kindness
A rare moment of kindness

While it won't be true of everyone, my response was cerebral rather than emotional. My reflections, even while watching were about the subtext, rather than the text.

Does it take the box office pull of someone like a Brad Pitt to get a film like this made and widely viewed? Compare the number of fine films about Jewish persecution and decimation in the WWII era with the number about 250 years of forced slavery of Africans in America.

Why is Brad in the film at all? He doesn't choose to play a part with any dramatic challenge, like the slave dealer and slave owners we meet. Much as I'm a fan, he couldn't have matched the performances of Giamatti, Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, whose compassionate slaveowner Ford shows us that there was some humanity in the South. Instead Pitt plays the man who facilitates Northup's release, in one of his more wooden, and shortest, film performances. I wonder whether that is the only part he'd want his African-born daughter to see him in. And whether his presence in the film, not just his role as first-named producer, was needed to guarantee a big white audience. Whereas Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" (Ejiofor's first film role incidentally) starred Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Pitt is the only true household name in this production. I think the film is finer for it, as our focus is directed to the character more than the performer.

'Brad the 'hero'?

I cared about Northup, and was glad to see him reunited with his family. But even as I watched, I found myself reflecting more on those who had no opportunity to escape. And, as an Australian, on the stories of European mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians that have rarely or never come to light.

In summary, I rate this film as worthy rather than great. I suspect however that it will be a film that bears re-watching. And that each viewing will reveal more subtle hallmarks of film making at its best.

Photos from Years a Slave
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*Gill Oscar was invited as a guest
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Why? Award-winning cinema and an important story
When: Australian release date 30 January 2014
Where: In cinemas
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