Following on from the awful true story of Philomena Lee, London Film Festival brings another horrendous true story based on the plight of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. 12 Years A Slave is a hard film to watch and one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in my 22 years or so watching films. Steve McQueen has presented the harrowing and upsetting true tale of Solomon Northup (an astonishing Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was abducted and sold into slavery, only escaping after twelve years. During these years he is subjected to horrific ordeals and exposed to the very worst side of humanity, mainly in the form of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Chiwetel Ejiofor is outstanding as Solomon. It’s possibly the male performance of the year, and there’s no doubt he’ll get a few nominations at the very least. His ability to say more with his eyes than his voice speaks volumes and really comes through in a few key scenes, the final one in particular. Just one look at him and the tears trickling down his face is enough to break even the stoniest of hearts. There’s a scene involving Lupita Nyong’o which, aside from being one of the most brutal scenes I’ve had to watch, shows Ejiofor’s incredible ability to act through his eyes. All the pain and suffering he’s enduring in these minutes shows in his eyes leaving you feeling lost, helpless and utterly broken. Nyong’o deserves a mention as well, playing Patsey, a woman who has to endure not only slave life, but the ‘affections’ of her master, Epps. Coming straight out of drama school she gives a performance to rival many established actresses. Michael Fassbender is virtually unrecognisable (to me, at least) as he prowls around his plantation humiliating and abusing his “property”. He’s a relentlessly horrible character right up to his last scene with a wife (Sarah Paulson) to match, and you can’t help but be desperate for a comeuppance.
There’s one issue with 12 Years A Slave and that’s Hans Zimmer and his score. His rehashing of Time from Inception works well for the film but is a disappointment from a composer who has previously been so good. There’s also the issue of an early scene which is horribly overscored and ruins what is otherwise the horrible beginning of Solomon’s horrible story. It’s as if Zimmer just couldn’t be bothered, which is such a shame because it brings an irritating fault throughout this film. Otherwise, the film is incredible. Everything from the costumes to the direction is brilliant. Where other directors would cut away, McQueen refuses and forces us to watch horrific actions being dealt to helpless people. It’s awful, incredibly hard to watch and very effective.
I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach repeatedly by 12 Years A Slave. I’m utterly exhausted and have so many emotions coursing through me it’s hard to make sense of them. This is an incredibly powerful film that will enrage and upset you, but has to be seen, if for no other reason than it has one of the best performances of the year. This is the first time I’ve been to a press screening that has ended with applause, and the film truly deserved it. Without a shadow of a doubt.
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Runtime: 133 min
Country: USA, UK