12 YEARS A SLAVE
In 1841 Washington, DC in pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty at the hands of malevolent Louisiana slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his odyssey, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) forever alters his life. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Steve McQueen wanted to tell a story about American slavery in a way that would enable the audience to closely relate to the central character of a slave; so he thought he would make up a scenario in which a free black man in pre-Civil War America is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He didn't have to make it up: his wife found him the perfect true story, 12 Years A Slave, a memoir by Solomon Northup, written in 1853, just months after Northup's extraordinary experiences ...yes, as a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery.
McQueen is well served by a wonderfully structured and beautifully adapted screenplay by John Ridley, and by heartwrenching performances of a superb cast, including young newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as fellow slave Patsey, who is used and abused yet her inner strength energizes Solomon - a significant, emotionally effective and authentic performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
The horrors of the barbaric slave trade are on full display, and indeed they need to be to make us fully sensitive to the exceptional resilience of the human spirit; it proves once again that it is very difficult to break a man's spirit if he has the character to withstand the assault.
The task of leading that assault falls on Michael Fassbender's cotton plantation owner, Edward Epps, who embodies three different slavers from Northup's book. Fassbender portrays Epps without resorting to caricature: his complexities include weakness, cowardice and cruelty as a self defence mechanism. Still, it's hard not to hate the man - and all those he represents.
McQueen's approach is the direct opposite of the fashion currently presented in most films where the faster the edit, the shakier the camera the more impact is imagined. McQueen shoots long takes in which the action (as in the emotional action, or intention) is the focus, involving us deeply and meaningfully in the characters, their circumstances and the broader context. The impact is strong.
He makes great use of the natural beauty of the Southern landscape, often using lingering wide shots of stunning beauty as ironic counterpoint and time passing signals. The result of this well thought out method is a film that grows and embeds itself into our psyche, which is made receptive by the cinematic tools so powerfully used.
As the end credits roll, we feel we have experienced as well as seen this wonderful masterwork from a filmmaker with oodles of natural talent.
Review by Louise Keller:
Brad Pitt, one of the film's producers, plays the role of a Canadian abolitionist, who believes in justice. It's a small but pivotal role in a film whose theme is injustice. The fact that one of the world's greatest box office stars plays this cameo, draws our attention to the moment, elevating its importance and relevance. Pitt plays a man of his word and one with a strong sense right and wrong. Based on Solomon Northup's memoir, Steve McQueen's hard-hitting film, 12 Years a Slave is themed on the extraordinary true story of a free black man in 19th century New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
While Django Unchained broached the topic of slavery through Quentin Tarantino's colourful brushstrokes, McQueen's cinematic vision lingers on the minutiae of cruelty, allowing us to feel as though we have taken part in the experience. We cannot help but cringe as we watch the unwatchable - a total disregard for humanity. Involving and disturbing with an inspiring central performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, this is a ballsy film with themes every bit as confronting as those broached by McQueen in his earlier films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011).
With sufficient establishment but little delay, Solomon Northup's (Ejiofor) circumstances are quickly changed, going from a comfortable life to that of a beaten, shackled slave. Paul Giamatti's slave trader harshly parades his wares naked for inspection, setting the scene for the treatment that is to come from Solomon's various masters. His name is changed immediately to that of Platt and it becomes clear that in the interests of staying alive, it is vital he keeps his educated status and former life to himself.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a sympathetic presence as Platt's first owner, but the plantation's foreman, played by a savage Paul Dano, makes his life untenable. The lengthy scene in which Platt is left, noose around his neck, his feet barely touching the muddy ground below, is hard to watch. Michael Fassbender plays Epps a sadistic, nasty man who is cruel for cruel's sake and continually lusts after a softly spoken slave called Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). The tedium of the days picking cotton in the fields is countered by the angst at the weigh-ins, when the weight of the cotton picked by each slave is scrutinised. The fact that Epps clearly prefers Patsey to his mealy-mouth' wife (Sarah Paulson) does not go down well in the household, resulting in a heart-wrenching whipping. Nyong'o is a striking presence and the scene in which she begs Platt to put her out of her misery, is one of the film's most memorable.
Traditional spiritual and gospel songs raise hope throughout and the beautiful, tranquil Louisiana landscape with its weeping foliage and lush greenery acts as a contradiction to the activity that takes place upon it. All the performances shine and Ejiofor perfectly personifies the strong-willed family man who does what it takes to survive his unjust fate as he navigates his way to eventual freedom.
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12 YEARS A SLAVE: UTTER DARKNESS
12 YEARS A SLAVE (MA15+)
CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Micahel Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Poulson, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodward, Kelsey Scott, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp, Quvenzhané Wallis
PRODUCER: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad
DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen
SCRIPT: John Ridley (memoir by Solomon Northup)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Sean Bobbitt
EDITOR: Joe Walker
MUSIC: Hans Zimmer
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Adam Stockhausen
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 30, 2014