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London Film Festival 2013: 12 Years A Slave - Review

12 Years A Slave

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

STEVE McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a film to be amazed by. Astonishingly powerful, deeply moving and frequently harrowing, this is tour-de-force filmmaking of the highest calibre.

Inspired by Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, this is landmark cinema that dares to confront the issue of slavery in unflinching fashion. Yet its success is such that it emerges as an empowering experience that will resonate with everyone who sees it.

The true story in question follows Solomon, an accomplished violinist and doting family man living free in New York, as he is conned into joining a travelling show and sold as a slave.

At first, he is acquired by the relatively kindly Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who uses Solomon’s intelligence and even rewards it. But when circumstances compel Ford to sell him onto plantation boss Epps (Michael Fassbender), he becomes the property of an increasingly unhinged and brutal ‘nigger breaker’ who will test his will to survive.

McQueen is no stranger to tales of human suffering (Hunger) or torment (Shame) but while both of his previous films have occasionally put the director’s art background to the fore at the expense of emotional engagement, this feels like the complete movie he has long been threatening to make.

His camera lingers only when it needs to but whether it’s on the broken down facial expressions of its oppressed actors or their whip-lashed flesh, the effect is utterly haunting. You feel the extent of the suffering, both mental and physical, and you can relate to them on a human level.

And yet there is also a complexity given to their chief oppressors, most notably in Fassbender’s tormented Epps. He remains a monster but one ravaged by the self-loathing he feels for lusting after one of his own slaves. While Cumberbatch’s Ford is governed by fear more than decency and frequently looks the other way – a painful reminder of the often used saying that for evil to prosper, good men look away.

Anchoring everything, though, is an incredibly compelling performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose portrayal of Solomon is as dignified as it is heartbreaking. The British actor has garnered comparisons to Denzel Washington throughout his career and now looks set to follow in his footsteps towards awards glory.

Ejiofor wears his torment and pain with impossible dignity, which make his outbursts and breakdowns all the more affecting. It is an extraordinary performance.

As is that of fellow slave Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o, whose journey might possibly be even more torrid given the ‘affection’ with which Epps holds her in. Nyong’o‘s’s portrayal is blistering in it’s intensity and her journey should burn its way into viewers’ sub-conscious for a long time afterwards.

Yet throughout, 12 Years A Slave impresses, whether in its impeccable production values (McQueen has once again called upon Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, while employing Hans Zimmer for the note-perfect score) and the top drawer performances from just about every member of its cast, with Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye (as another slave, Eliza) and Brad Pitt also making resounding impressions to small or large degrees.

McQueen’s crowning achievement, however, is the way in which he has successfully placed the issue of slavery and racial intolerance front and centre, forcing one nation in particular to confront its past, while providing an intelligent examination of contemporary attitudes towards race for every nation to consider.

12 Years A Slave is an intense and humbling experience as well as cinema at its most potent and engaging. It should be seen by everybody.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 133mins
UK Release Date: January 24, 2014
London Film Festival Dates: October 18 (OLS, 8.30pm), October 19 (Odeon West End, 12pm), October 20 (Rich Mix, 5.45pm)