Posted on 3/03/14 03:32 PM
Brutal, harrowing, unflinching, and ultimately hopeful are just a few of the (many) ways to describe Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave. The Academy's pick for the film of 2013 is a powerhouse of acting talent, incredible storytelling, and passionate filmmaking, rife with stunning vistas and scenes of stomach-churning cruelty.
In the year 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York. Husband to a loving wife, and father to two children, Northup works as a carpenter, in addition to his work as a skilled fiddle-player. He is a beloved figure in his community, and has attracted the ire of no one.
That changes, however, when he meets Hamilton and Brown (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy), two circus promoters who offer Northup a job playing the fiddle for two weeks, in exchange for fair pay. Unable to refuse such a lucrative offer, Northup agrees, departing for Washington with the two men. There, he has dinner with the pair, before becoming sick and passing out. Northup awakens in chains, about to be shipped to New Orleans. In one of the film's most-brutal scenes, Northup is viciously beaten for protesting his captivity, before being renamed 'Platt', the identity of a runaway slave.
Before long, Northup is in the hands of a remorselessly cold slave trader (a tour-de-force scene for Paul Giamatti), who sells the rechristened Platt to a benevolent plantation owner, William Prince Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). From there, Northup's journey truly begins.
Wow, where to start with 12 Years A Slave? It is quite easily the best film I've seen of 2013, and that's against technical groundbreaker Gravity, moody thriller Prisoners, and sensory joy Rush. On all levels, 12 Years A Slave wows, from it's incredible acting, to it's brutally-real direction, to it's palpably-realistic writing. There is little, if anything, to complain about.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (best known for his work on the stage, where he is among the greatest of his generation) delivers a towering performance as Solomon Northup. The struggle to retain his dignity, while managing to survive in the face of unimaginable cruelty is played out on his face and in his voice. Fear laces his every vocalisation, with undercurrents of a strength, and will to push forward, no matter the cost. It is difficult for many a great actor to truly express absolute, unfettered desperation, but Ejiofor pulls it off brilliantly. I'm sure Matthew McConaughey was more-than-deserving of his award, but Ejiofor too would have been an excellent recipient.
And if that's not enough praise, consider this: He is overshadowed by a co-star! Ejiofor goes to hell and back as his character, but it's The Devil that truly ignites the screen. Michael Fassbender (Shame, Hunger) delivers a searing, oft-terrifying and always-mesmerising performance as Edwin Epps, the blackhearted plantation owner that takes in Northup following his departure from the Ford Plantation. "He is a hard man. Prides himself on being a 'nigger-breaker'" says the kindly Ford of Epps, but not even that can represent the monstrosity we are about to meet.
Fassbender provides the most-cruel, callous, truly horrifying vision of unrepentant evil I've seen in film since I don't know when. I love Fassbender as an actor - I think he's one of the most daring, purely-talented actors working today - and when he's on his game, he is on. This is perhaps the finest example. As Edwin Epps, Fassbender is a melting pot of bigotry, hatred, and ignorance in it's most basic form, reverting to an animalistic nature he displays at moments of great frustration. I mentioned that Ejiofor lets his guard down to play a truly desperate man, and the same goes for Fassbender here, only his is a portrayal of depthless hatred and pure villainy. He too lost out on an Oscar last night, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was a close runner-up.
And of course, the supporting cast is a perfect frame for the clash at the centre of the film. Lupita Nyong'o deservedly took home an Oscar for her role as the hopeless, truly-defeated Patsey, apple of Epps' eye. In the most eye-opening scene of the film, Nyong'o wrenches the hearts and minds of cinemagoers everywhere, sealing her as the pick for Best Supporting Actress. Sarah Paulson too, delivers a knockout, as Mary Epps, domineering wife of Edwin. Her jealousy of Patsey, and hatred of Edwin's lust adds a startling amount of depth to the couple, as well as showcasing Paulson as the reason behind Epps' cruelty.
Others come in and out in glorified cameos, from Paul Dano (a rising star and notable member of Prisoners' cast), Benedict Cumberbatch (best known as TV's Sherlock), and Paul Giamatti all deliver the goods as their respective characters.
And what better to portray a time of such depravity than some of the most beautiful cinematography of the year? Sean Bobbitt wisely employed a widescreen format to convey the grandiosity of Solomon's journey, and accurately represented the vibrant colours of the south (a stark contrast to the horrors committed therein). Oftentimes, McQueen (a very laid-back director, who allows us time to soak in the often-contradictory prettiness of his vistas) spends an inordinate amount of time lavishing us with gorgeous shots of the landscape, before delving into the savagery of the material. It's this toying with our emotions that continues the emotional rollercoasterdom of the film.
This is certainly a raw, passionate, indescribably powerful film (if not as immediately hard-hitting as McQueen's previous effort (with Fassbender), Shame. Nevertheless, under his watchful eye, the film comes together stunningly well. The score by Hans Zimmer (notably restrained here, in comparison to his virtuoso work on 2013's Rush) is well-placed, punctuating Northup's struggle suitably well. The production design is sparkling, providing the film's scenes with an eerie, painted feel. The cast is uniformly marvelous, and the cinematography couldn't be better.
So what have we learned? Aside from a rarely-seen look into the darkest recesses of man's capacity for cruelty, we have witnessed the incredible story of one man's ability to survive and to hope, another's to coerce and torture, the kindness even a stranger can impart upon another. There are many miraculous things going on in 12 Years A Slave. About hope, kindness, courage and cruelty, and for all those, and so much more, it is without a doubt the best film of 2013.
Final Grade: A+