“The most important film you’ll see this year” usually means you have to drag yourself to see something worthy and as great as it may be you will probably suffer it.
This is NOT one of those films. It is far from a chore, it is a joy. A beautifully made piece of film, filled with all the right ingredients prepared in the right order.
Cinematography-Check. Sean Bobbitt frames it stunningly, a delight to behold.
Writing-Check. John Ridley delivers a screenplay devoid of sentimentality.
Acting-Check check check. We shall return to my favourite subject soon.
Direction-Check mate. Steve McQueen walks the line betwixt true story honesty and great storytelling.
I have yet to see Hunger but as much as I thought Shame was as well made film, I had some issues with it as a whole. I felt it was too loose and Fassbender’s character had no big transformation. Beautifully shot (Sean Bobbit again as D.O.P.), but ultimately, for me, unsatisfying.
With 12 Years a Slave, however, McQueen has hit all the right marks and knocks it out of the park.
The balance is near enough perfect.
And now, the acting.
Everyone brings their ‘A’ game to this incredibly sensitive true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who is duped, separated from his family and sold into slavery. The film takes place in 1841 and shows Northup enduring all manner of horrific injustices over the subsequent 12 years.
This is not a Passion of the Christ/Schindler’s List type of experience though. As brutal as it is the story unfolds with space and subtlety and takes the viewer on a cinematic journey that delivers its message maturely and clearly.
All are excellent, mired in truth and devoid of the over-acting and over-emoting that we come to expect from stories with heavy subject matter.
Michael Kenneth Williams turns up as another man duped and sold, always nice to see him whatever he does, he brings a weight to his performances that I enjoy tremendously.
Dwight Henry is wonderful as the other side to Michael K’s coin.
Taran Killam, an SNL alumni and Scoot McNairy play the dupers with the right balance of conniving and conviction.
Benedict Cumberbatch is securing his place in Hollywood as the conflicted slave owner Solomon is initially sold to.
Paul Dano injects his role with a raw animal energy that is both unhinged and scary.
Michael Fassbender comes in like a man possessed with wanton lust and his commitment to going to the dark side had been deservedly acknowledged by the awards posse.
Lupita Nyong’o delivers and performance of such sadness and beauty it’s enough to break your heart and is also being recognized by the awards mafia.
Paul Giamatti turns up as the procurer and seller of the stolen people.
If I’ve forgotten anyone, I apologise, everyone is stellar.
And, of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Words cannot begin to do justice to the depth and subtlety of his performance. He is extraordinary. My friend was talking about how receptive he is in this and his playing off the other actors is a masterclass in how to do actings. He is telling the story and not getting in the way.
No histrionics here, just plain and simple truths.
It is a testament to an actor who has never really put a foot wrong in his career making his first big splash in 1997 with Spielberg’s Amistad.
He deserves every accolade and firmly cements his place as an actor of extreme talent.
Now, I know this has been a long one but it would be remiss of me to not mention my theory that it had to take an Englishman to bring this film to the table. Maybe it’s too close to the bone emotionally for a current native American to tell this story clearly, without being clouded by their emotions.
Not necessarily an Englishman but someone other than an American. There is a greater level of perspective with someone who has distance allowing the space to tell the story honestly and with clarity.
Maybe it’s controversial but look at the track record of American made slave films (Wikipedia counts 29), from Birth of a Nation to Django Unchained never has a film dealt with the issues at hand with such sensitivity.
So, hats off to Mr McQueen and all who came to the table, you have made a powerful film that should be part of the school curriculum. A dark time in recent history that needs to be looked at and acknowledged.