With awards season now upon us, it is predicted to be a close one with many worthy nominations but for many this is a lead contender. So is 12 Years A Slave worthy of the praise?
This is the tale of Solomon Northup who, as the film begins, is a successful and talented musician living in New York. Happily married with 2 children, Northup is given an opportunity to earn a decent amount of money working with 2 individuals as a travelling musician, one night the three of them are having a meal and Solomon is being given more and more alcohol. Eventually the three leave the restaurant where Northup is seen vomitting, He is put into bed and the next scene wakes up not in his bed but chained up inside a darkened room. He has been kidnapped and from here is beaten and placed onto a paddle steamer to Louisiana where he is sold into the slave trade on cotton plantations.
From here the story moves at a relentless and brutal pace, Solomon is initially placed with a group of slaves working for Ford (played by Sherlock himself Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems a more benevolent ‘owner’ of the slaves. He even presents Solomon with a new fiddle to enable him to continue playing. However, when Solomon recognises a better way of working and points this out to Ford and his foreman Tibeats the latter is less than pleased to have been usurped by a slave that he takes it out on Solomon. Eventually Solomon cracks and reacts to his treatment resulting in an incident that requires Ford to save Solomon. As a result of this Solomon is passed over to Edwin Epps as his position with Ford is no longer tenable.
Epps is a different character, full of self loathing and along with his wife has no respect for the slaves. Mrs Epps takes a particular dislike to Patsey, a young woman who was seen earlier being separated from her children, who Epps has decided to use for self gratification. Mrs Epps treatment of Patsey is cruel and relentless. However Mrs Epps does treat Solomon with a little more dignity, even allowing him to run errands for her.
The film moves at a relentless pace, when you think there may be some light, it is soon closed off and the dark pace returns. Some of the performances are incredible. Michael Fassbender plays the role of Epps superbly, showing anger, self loathing and that Southern American godly weirdness in equal measures. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey is something else, so much pain reflected in so many ways.
But the performance of the film is that of Solomon who is portrayed magnificently by Chiwetel Ejiofor. His hurt, his suffering, the hollow look in his eyes as he witnesses and is affected by 12 years of insufferable cruelty is quite remarkable. You really do feel his pain. If he is not given awards for his performance then this, in my eyes, will be the biggest mistake in Oscar history since Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture award!
Some of the scenes are hard to watch, there is one scene that is incredibly graphic, thankfully not in vision, of a whipping given out for a very petty crime that resulted in my fiancé having to turn away from the screen. The aftermath of the beating is shown and it is too horrible to consider. There are many times where the feeling of nausea is within you.
This is a truly remarkable piece of cinema, British director Steve McQueen has, to me, presented the defining piece for cinema history of the cruel and barbaric world of the slave trade – in much the same way as Spielberg did for the Holocaust. It leaves you affected and simply stunned into believing that man could be so cruel towards a fellow man.
This is not a film to go and enjoy, I think there must be something wrong with you if you think this is enjoyable in any way, but it is certainly something you should go and see and then recognise that we today have and can continue to learn the mistakes of the past.
This will not be the most enjoyable film of 2014, what I will say here and now is that it almost certainly will be the BEST film I will see in 2014.