There’s a numbness and pain which comes from watching Steve McQueen’s latest masterpiece which makes it one of the most difficult films I’ve ever had to write about. It’s a tortuous, brutally honest human narrative which succeeds in feeling like one of the most important films ever made but crucially, it’s a masterfully constructed piece of cinema. Steve McQueen discovered Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) memoir through the recommendation of his wife, the memoir of a relatively prosperous black musician living with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York before being duped and captured into the slave trade like an animal. The film rings of truth in a solemn, modest sadness, not wallowing in pity but unflinching, graphic honesty.
It’s so powerful I had to look away on a number of occasions: when the slaves were up for sale, naked, like meat. When Northup (renamed ‘Platt’ by his owners) is hung from a noose for fighting back against a white plantation worker (Paul Dano) with his tiptoes just about reaching the ground to keep him alive while ordinary plantation life contentedly muddles on in the background, in what feels like one of the longest and most painfully held shots ever captured on film. It’s a shot which simply has to be seen, it burns so deep and it’s a credit to McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for having the invention to create such an image and having the nerve to carry it through. Then there’s the scene when the utterly malevolent slaveowner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) publicly flogs the female slave (Lupita Nyong’o) he had previously taken a sinister interest in. It’s unbearable and in the hands of a less skilled director it might come across as emotionally exploitative film but McQueen’s talent (going back to Hunger and Shame) lies in his ability to present an image without manipulation, without blinking or providing a certain sentiment for the audience to mimic.
That’s exactly the sort of performance he gets from his actors. Ejiofor (an actor best known on stage), acts mainly with his body, watch how his posture changes throughout the film rather than overplaying emotions. McQueen’s long term collaborator Michael Fassbender is cruel and unhinged, the perfect counterpoint to Northup’s first master, the more benevolent, passive Benedict Cumberbatch. Nyong’o perfectly captures the vulnerability of the human condition, all wrapped up in Bobbitt’s gorgeous cinematography which brings out every facet of this dark corner of history. Brad Pitt turns up near the end in a odd messianic moment which can be forgiven because of the film’s otherwise overwhelming strengths. If it isn’t already, by the end of the film your day will be over, there’s simply nothing left to think about.
Review by David Rank
12 Years a Slave is out now in the UK and US. Running time 134 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).