Film Review: 12 Years a Slave (MA15+) (USA, 2013)


A free black man living in New York, Soloman Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) accepts a job working as a violinist with a circus, does a few gigs in different cities and ends up in Washington. His travel companions trick him, sell him in to slavery and, as the title suggests, the film tells the story of his life for the next 12 years. Ejiofor gives a captivating performance as he struggles to comprehend his situation, learns so survive and copes with the disappointment as moments of hope and happiness are extinguished.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fast becoming one of my favourite actors and again plays an intriguing role that is neither the nasty plantation owner you fear, nor the hero you hope for. Michael Fassbender is excellent as a vicious plantation owner. He holds an unswerving belief that his slaves are his property and that he has every right to treat them as he chooses. His piercing blue eyes and the intensity of his character leave a lasting impression.

Many films attempt to tell the story of a characters life but few do it better than this one. Slavery and racism are uncomfortable topics, yet this film captures the humanity and lack of it so expertly that you can’t help but be both transfixed and horrified. There are a collection of moments that show how people turn away and ignore situations when they should intervene. It shows people being indifferent to injustice or too scared to act and you can’t help but feel the fear that slaves must have lived with daily and how paralysing it can be. Conversely, it also shows how people can care for each other in the hardest of times. It shows the triumph of the human spirit and the will to survive and endure. Be prepared for several violent scenes, but none are without purpose or more gratuitous than they should be. They serve to make an impression and give meaning to the hardship the lead character suffers.

At 134 minutes, the pacing of this film was exceptional, managing to convey the years passing and yet keep your attention with story after story covering so much raw emotion. Steve McQueen’s direction deserves much credit. McQueen’s past films, Hunger and Shame, all have a recurring theme of deep suffering which he has a unique way of expressing. Shame is a confronting film about a man struggling with his sexuality and whilst 12 Years A Slave is confronting too, it’s perhaps more conventional as it deals with violence as opposed to sexuality. This would certainly make it a tip of mine for an Oscar or two, after winning plenty of other recent awards, including the Golden Globe for best drama.

The soundtrack was also remarkable, as much for its absence as for the choice of music. Whether it was the sound of chains, a man trying to keep his balance on tip toes in the mud, or the brutality of punishment, this film lets you really feel the moment, rather than embellish it with an overwrought soundtrack. My only criticism is that whilst this film captured my mind, it did not quite capture my heart. I wanted to feel more at the conclusion of this epic tale and though I was moved by the story, I still felt detached from Ejiofor’s character, though this may have been due to viewing it with a critical eye. Nonetheless, this is a one of the year’s best films that will capture your attention, move you emotionally and will remain a “must watch” for decades to come.


12 Years a Slave is in Australian cinemas from tomorrow, 30th January.


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