12 Years a Slave review: Oscars beckon for excellent historical drama

Posted on 15 January 2014
By Craig Kell
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Slavery and racism as a theme has seen a resurgence in recent years, owing mainly due to the popularity of films like Lincoln, Django Unchained and The Butler.

But, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave leaves out the blockbuster set pieces, instead telling a harsh tale of human survival.

Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List was the last film of this calibre to depict such a traumatising period in human history, as the African-American people are made to suffer in McQueen’s latest big-screen triumph.

The word ‘gritty’ best describes this British director’s previous projects, beginning with the IRA drama Hunger and followed up with a tale of raunchy sex Shame.

There is no doubting that 12 Years follows a similar formula, retelling the brutally honest memoirs of Northup’s touch existence with the help of screenwriter John Ridley.

The audience first sees Solomon as a dignified and well dressed man with a family who adore him. But once he is kidnapped and in chains, his predicament takes a brutal turn as he endures horrific abuse from his captors whilst trying to prove he is a free man. Within a harrowing few moments he has gone from respectable gentleman to beaten individual.

This sets the tone for McQueen’s bleak drama as the director captures the brutal moments of violence particularly well through the violent whipping scenes that reveal deep flesh wounds with an unflinching use of sound.

The story is rife with nonviolent imagery that will stay in your mind for a long time, like the ruthless moments of humiliation or the physical exhaustion that Solomon must endure.

These horrifying moments become a painful reminder to Solomon about the true horrors of life as he fights a personal battle that forces him to quietly accept his situation with an unwavering hope that he will come out of his predicament unscathed.

The film benefits from Chiwetel Ejiofor commanding and heartfelt performance, which has led to deserved acclaim. His well-executed facial expressions enable us to root for Solomon as he goes through different emotions in what is a very well-contained portrayal.

Chiwetel’s experienced supporting cast also excel in such a vastly important narrative.

Frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender delves into dark territory with his performance as the bigoted and despicable Edwin Epps.

Although he has played nasty characters before, Fassbender is taking on a real-life villainous role, which shares similarities to Ralph Fiennes’ chilling portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. His on screen presence strikes fear into his co-stars and the appalled audience alike.

Sarah Paulson is just as memorable as Epps’s equally-vile wife, a bitterly jealous woman who is scornful towards her husband for his obsession with cotton picker Patsey.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o almost steals the emotional attention away from Ejiofor’s Solomon with her heartbreaking (and award-worthy) turn as Patsey, a young woman who shares in the audience sympathy as she suffers abuse alongside her male counterpart.

Finally, Brad Pitt deserves an honourable mention for his brief yet soulful contribution as the Canadian builder who becomes crucial in helping Solomon with his battle for survival.

Hans Zimmer puts forth a loud and enriched score which relies on subtle ticks and striking chords while Sean Bobbit captures the exquisite 19th Century setting with his exquisite camera work which is used impeccably in scenes that focus on the Deep South.

Unfortunately, 12 Years doesn’t quite reach the golden five-star rating, which comes to down to the slightly underwhelming end. While it seems like a happy one, the epilogue credits don’t quite explain enough about certain character’s fates, making it feel rushed.

It must be noted that the film is not easy viewing and some audiences may find it too bleak and uncomfortable to sit through, particularly with its racial dialogue and brutal moments of violence.

But, 12 Years a Slave is just too important a film to be ignored and will surely go on to clinch Oscar glory.