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12 Years A Slave - Film Review

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by Richard Leathem (subscribe)
Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published January 28th 2014
A sad chapter in American history finally on the big screen
Director: Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch

Sometimes it takes an outsider to truly capture an episode in a country's history. In much the same way as the American/Indian team of Merchant Ivory came to best represent on film the British class system at the beginning of the 20th Century, so it is that Brit Steve McQueen has brought to the big screen the first serious representation of black slavery in 19th Century America.

12 years slave chiwetel ejiofor lupita nyong'o
Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) share a moment of quiet desperation.

12 Years a Slave centres on the real-life story of Solomon Northup, an educated black man who was kidnapped and sold as a slave during the 1840s. His autobiography became a best-seller and inspired two stage plays, but it has taken this long for such a dramatic miscarriage of human rights to be made into a feature film.

In addition to being directed by an Englishman, many of the American characters are played by Brit actors, not that this detracts from the unflinching authenticity of the production in the slightest. Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, regular McQueen muse Michael Fassbender as his malevolent "master' Edwin Epps and Benedict Cumberbatch, as a much more reasonable estate owner, are all outstanding.

At film's beginning we are introduced to Northup as a gentlemen respected in polite New York society and highly regarded for his fine violin skills. Soon after, he is kidnapped and shipped off to Louisiana where he has another identity forced on him and is sold as a slave to a plantation owner.

He soon learns that to raise too much resistance is to risk his life, and so it is that often we see him silently witnessing the whippings and hangings of other blacks. Some of these scenes are very difficult to watch and not for the squeamish. McQueen doesn't skimp on the gory details.

Despite the awful plight of Solomon, and a fine portrayal by Ejiofor, his stoicism makes his character hard to penetrate. Although they have less screen time, some of the other characters actually come across as more complex and fully realised. Fellow slave and unfortunate object of Epps' desire, Patsey (stunningly played by Mexican born Kenyan Lupita Nyong'o) is such an aching figure of alternating desperation and resignation. She easily becomes the centre of every scene she's in. Even the figure of Epps is a complicated one, on the surface nothing but an arrogant white supremacist, but the power struggle between him and his wife (Sarah Poulson - also excellent) is a fascinating thing to behold.

McQueen's films are steadily being mounted on larger canvasses and while I prefer the intimacy and claustrophobic nature of his first film Hunger, he has maintained a great command of how to frame a scene.

12 years slave michael fassbender sarah poulson
Malevolent plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his warring wife (Sarah Poulson)

Hans Zimmer's score is wonderfully evocative in its simplicity, although it does sound a tad like some of his previous scores.

The film's only false note is a gratuitous and distracting cameo by Brad Pitt. His appearance is too much of a loud signpost that we are watching a 'significant character'. Given his company is one of the film's producers, it was probably a proviso that he appear in the film, but one wishes his ego hadn't got in the way of reason.

At almost two and a half hours, 12 Years a Slave never fails to maintain interest. It's clearly an important chapter in America's history that is well overdue in its telling. For me, not as moving as I was expecting it to be, but who am I to argue with so many industry and critics' awards?

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Why? One of the Oscar front-runners
Where: At selected cinemas
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