12 Years a Slave (2013) Film Review from the 57th Annual BFI London Film Festival (LFF), a movie directed by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard.
A throwback to an earlier time when mainstream films made no compromise, 12 Years a Slave is not simply Steve McQueen’s greatest achievement in a still young career full of masterful works. It ranks amongst the best films about slavery alongside Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Spielberg’s Amistad and it is certainly the most realistic, brutally affecting and masterfully acted one. McQueen’s choices make this film the front-runner for the year’s Best Picture Oscar. It does what Schindler’s List (1993) does for the Holocaust. The film tells a triumphant true story on the background of one of the darkest chapters in our distant but unfortunately still relevant to our contemporary world history. As in his past successes, McQueen hides absolutely nothing; he gives us the bare reality with all the gruesome details in the most hard-hitting way imaginable. McQueen marks everything in his film-the heartbreaks, the cruelty, and the triumphs with that simple but masterful choice. 12 Years a Slave is the superb result of determined direction, great performances and an amazing true story.
The star of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Northup) rose on the big screen with his best performance to date and overshadowed the remainder of great acting by every other cast member. Ejiofor was capable of depicting grief of abnormal depth and in the same time he managed to place into this heart-broken character an aura of utterly resounding dignity and courage. Ejiofor delivered just one short monologue piece, expressing his will to survive but it is so good, honorable and affecting that it was stuck with me throughout the rest of the film and it becomes his philosophy of salvation. Throughout the course of the film I slowly witnessed how the inner strength within Samuel Northup dies, smothered by the atrocities and the pain in his surrounding world. Ejiofor is so skilled that on some occasions his eyes alone were enough to tell you what kind of pain (there were a lot of types of pain in this film) was going through him. There was a scene in which he is cutting timber and he stops for a moment and you can just tell by the look in his eyes that in that moment his character is not simply sick and ashamed of the way he is treated but that he can’t believe that his life was brought to such a low and despicable condition. All of this was understandable and visible in this one look. There was another more prudent example of this acting mastery in a single stale 1-minute shot in which Ejiofor doesn’t utter a word but the thought coming through his head was clear: ‘I will never leave this place. I will stay here and die after years full of pain and torture.’ Such acting level is rarely masterful. It would be very difficult for McQueen to cast anyone better even though there were other possible choices. Ejiofor’s talent but also his obvious vulnerability makes him the perfect match for the role of this incredible stoic historical personage, an unlikely survivor in a time of genuine horror. He is also perfect for the director’s style since he can depict great pain in great detail-the very same thing that McQueen does bests in all of his movies.
The remainder of the cast also did a spectacular work. Fittingly for a masterpiece, every character in this film stands for an archetype of the time of slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Northup is the witness. Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner-the one man who probably can match Ejiofor’s performance is the symbol of slavery’s most evil. His performance was built out of pure evil all the way through: solid, unbreakable, remorseless, just like the tortures he puts his slaves through. The maliciousness in Fassbender’s voice and his beast-like abrupt movements of fury were just as affecting as the sadness in Ejiofor’s eyes. This is Fassbender’s best performance to date, maybe matched only by his acting in another 2013 film-The Counselor. Lupita Nyong’o delivered the boldest performance since she played the character that symbolizes the victim. I haven’t seen her in any other film and to this day when I look her up on the Internet I get shivers because all I remember from her is her role in the film and I recall what kind of sick, hellish pain her character went through. She displayed absolute vulnerability and when it comes to emotional or physical pain she went deep enough for me to wish to look away from the screen. The only strength she displayed is when she begged and defended herself through words and it was equally troubling and moving when even that was not enough for her to be rescued. Brad Pitt’s carpenter stood for the voice of reason. With his humane, noble face, the assured delivery of his lines, he brings extraordinary light and hope within the film at a very dark moment. Brad Pitt looks much older and more experienced than we remember him in the beginning of the 2000’s and that experience, written on his expression, is what helps his character oppose with nobility and power the main antagonist-Fassbender. Benedict Cumberbatch’s plantation owner was the remorseful member of evil-the slaver who is aware of the wrongfulness of the world around him. His touching, humane, quiet performance on the background of slavery’s horrors make him a perfect fit in the role. Paul Dano’s character represented an example of the ordinary man who has been conquered by slavery’s ideology. He sings an entire racist song with a mad, maniacal voice-with the sort of insane note he has always been good at. Paul Giamatti played the higher ranking member of the racist society-he displays cruelty through his dialogue and steel-hard authority. This entire tornado of masterful, powerful performances was the first ingredient that makes this film great.
The second one was Steve McQueen. He has made the perfect directional decision for a film that depicts slavery and the story of one man going through all that horror. McQueen has decided to not simply show us everything that is terrifying about slavery but to show it in the most heart-wrenching manner possible. By that, I don’t mean just showing us the wounds of the slaves. Throughout the course of the film, McQueen explored and showed us every little moment of the emotional journey of the slaves. Every little moment of shame, dishonour, pain-internal, external, physical, but mostly emotional was there for us to witness and experience on the big screen. McQueen made his shots long so that we can be affected better from the moment. He filled them with emotion in various different ways. There was a scene in which a mother loses her children to a trade deal. Throughout the whole shot we could see Giamatti (the man behind the evil act), Cumberbatch (the man who is trying to oppose the evil, but in the same time is partly responsible for it) and in the middle between them the family (the victims). McQueen didn’t simply made the audience’s hearts break from all the horrors visible on screen; he also involved us personally going as far as trying to instil in us the feeling of guilt and shame. At some point I felt ashamed of the fact that I was standing in the theatre watching the horrors while unable to do anything about it just like the rest of the slaves observing it or taking the punishment. The scenes of torture stretched on for minutes so that we could reach the point in which we had absorbed so much pain that we wanted to see something else. The details were devastating. We sew a relatively long shot of a woman passing out from pain as she is tortured. We saw even worse. The emotional impact will be enough for you to be drenched in tears by the end. If you are not it means you have started treating the film as Northup has started treating slavery and you are too shocked, too sick from it to cry. Either way it is Steve McQueen who has done a phenomenal job.
12 Years a Slave is the perfect film for Steve McQueen because slavery is a terrifying subject and it is within McQueen’s style to show every detail of a story. McQueen didn’t simply explored thoroughly the case of slavery but he bestowed its full emotional impact upon us visually, meaningfully and showed us a story that is as heart-breaking and painful as possible. Some people might not want to return to see it for a second time because in main-stream film-making you have never seen something as cruel when it comes to physical torture. You might have seen The Passion of the Christ (2004) but 12 Years a Slave will make you rethink how cruel Mel Gibson’s film is. All of this is necessary, all of this is essential. Slavery is something too shameful and too horrific for people of the 21st century to have an even slightly unrealistic idea for it. 12 Years a Slave is what really happened in every way and it is a journey unlike any other you have ever seen.
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