You do have to feel sorry for Leonardo DiCaprio, don’t you? Every year seems to be the one when he’ll finally win that elusive Oscar, and then something comes along and pips him to it.
And on that note, we have 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s account of slave life in the mid-nineteenth century American south. It’s almost hard-wired to be a hit, given the combination of subject, cast and director. But the buzz surrounding it has been something truly special. Put simply, I haven’t heard a negative word about it.
Northrup’s book is an unknown to me, so I can’t make any comparisons to the source material. What you see here will be a judgement of the film on its own merits. Which is how it should be
And, I have to say, the buzz is entirely justified.
12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in 1841 New York working as a carpenter and violinist. Solomon is kidnapped, renamed “Platt” and sold into slavery in the service of William Ford (Blasphemy Cumbercooch*). After an altercation with one of the overseers, Ford sells Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cruel cotton plantation owner who habitually whips his slaves and repeatedly rapes one, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
This film is brutal, but not as unwatchably graphic as some hints had led me to believe. There are parts which are definitely difficult watching, but it stems more from an oft uncomfortable realisation of real historical events. What is difficult watching is knowing that these are depictions of real events, which happened to real people, barely 150 years ago.
Of the acting talent, there aren’t enough words in my vocabulary to describe how well Ejiofer plays his part. His performance is so intense, so palpably real and overflowing with emotion, that without him this film would not work. There are long shots, with no dialogue, where his expression and his posture speak more in mere moments than many films manage in three hours.
Praise is also due to Fassbender. It can’t be easy to play such a thoroughly unlikeable character, so full of hate and righteous anger. And Epps is truly detestable. In comparison, Bandersnatch Custardbath’s* role got very little screentime. It did stick in the throat a little; Ford is the “good” master (relatively, at least), but he is still a slaveowner, and he still refuses Solomon justice.
It isn’t, though, just the acting. The cinematography is nothing short of a work of art. What you’d expect, perhaps, of Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen. But some of the camera work is beautiful; long, lingering shots, particularly one where the audience, as Solomon, watches a letter burn away until the last ember fades to black like the last spark of hope.
The other scene which stands out is were Solomon teeters on tip-toes with a noose around his neck after a botched lynching. In the background, plantation workers go about their business for several tense minutes as Solomon struggles and clings to life until Billiardball Vegemite* shows up to cut him down. It is emblematic of the breathless excitement engendered by cunning camerawork and a solid eye for the powerful shot.
12 Years a Slave is an amazing film. There are few things which I think should be compulsory viewing for everyone, but this is definitely one of them. It isn’t over-the-top or exploitative, and a lot is said through implication, but it is tremendously powerful and moving. If it cleans up at the awards, which it stands a good chance of, then it, Steve McQueen, and especially the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor thoroughly deserve to.
*All substitute Burgerking Crumplehorn names courtesy of the Benedict Cumberbatch name generator.