12 YEARS A SLAVE
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Runtime: 134 mins.
Australian release date: 30 January 2014
Previewed at: Dendy Newtown, Sydney, on 12 December 2013
Judging by Steve McQueen’s previous two features, Shame and Hunger, it comes as no surprise that his next project deals with equally tough subject matter; in his latest film, 12 Years A Slave, McQueen succeeds once again in putting his audience through the emotional wringer. Based on the 1853 memoirs of a former slave, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and developed into a screenplay by the prolific US author and screenwriter John Ridley, this is 134 minutes of the most profound misery you are likely to experience at the cinema. It will leave you feeling drained and angry, which just goes to show what an engaging filmmaker McQueen is.
In 1841 Northup was a skilled carpenter and fiddle player, a free man living with his wife and children in New York State, during the pre-Civil War years when the North was free of slavery, but the practice was still commonplace in the South. When he takes up an offer to go on tour for a couple of weeks, he is drugged by his fellow musicians while in Washington DC and sold to a vile slave trader, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti). He is then bought by a relatively benevolent plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who eventually sells him on to another Louisiana plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps, on the other hand, is a monster who believes that his right to abuse ‘his’ slaves, both physically and sexually, is biblically sanctioned. On his plantation he expects the slaves, men and women, to pick a minimum of 200 pounds of cotton a day or face a severe lashing.
Northup, an educated, literate man, is desperate to contact his family and finds himself in a situation that is insupportable, especially when compared to his life in the North. He is warned by his fellow slaves to say as little as possible if he wants to survive and to hide his ability to read and write. His only moment of relief is when he is occasionally brought into the house to play his fiddle, a gift from Ford. Life on the plantation is cruel beyond belief and he bears witness to the rape and torture of one of his fellow slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), at the hands of Epps. He is also subjected to a particularly harrowing torture himself. This hellish existence lasts for twelve years, until the day he encounters a compassionate Canadian carpenter, Bass (Brad Pitt), whom he trusts enough to reveal his plight.
There are many moments in this film when Sean Bobbitt’s (who worked with McQueen on Shame and Hunger) cinematography juxtaposes the most brutal treatment of human beings in the most beautiful locations. This in itself makes for an unsettling experience, for it is hard to fathom why Man is capable of such unrelenting evil. All the performances are superb, particularly those of Chiwetel, Nyong’o and Fassbender. It is going to be interesting to see how many of the nine awards it’s nominated for, 12 Years A Slave picks up at the Oscars. To date it has been awarded the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama, a deserved accolade indeed. 2014 has so far been a great year for serious, adult cinema and this is another film not to be missed!