12 Years a Slave

Oliver Lunn

Once again Steve McQueen, the fearless and ferociously intelligent British artist behind the profoundly moving and audacious Hunger and Shame, has cast his unflinching gaze on taboo subject matter, exploring the nebulous realms where few, if any, filmmakers have delved before him. His latest, 12 Years a Slave, is an unbelievably affecting film that brings new meaning to the word ‘freedom’ while pushing the boundaries of depicting torture on film (the Oldboy tooth torture scene seems like a breeze in comparison). In short, it’s a flawless masterpiece.

Set in pre-Civil War United States, and based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what has to be the performance of the year), a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted, separated from his wife and children, and sold into slavery. Although facing extreme – and we mean extreme – torture at the hands of his white slave-owner oppressors (the worst of which being Michael Fassbender’s formidable sadist, Edwin Epps, and Paul Dano’s redneck weasel, John Tibeats), the resilient Solomon never loses hope, staring his adversity blankly in the face. “It would be an unspeakable happiness to see my wife and children again,” he appeals to Brad Pitt’s liberal Canadian, Bass, who carries the film’s great moral authority and who provides a faint light in a necessarily – and boldly – bleak film.

This narrative drive – for Solomon to be reunited with his wife and children – is near-Spielbergian with its epic canvas and our own desire to see a tearful, heart-warming reunion; although, as we know with McQueen, the comparison doesn’t extend to Spielberg’s often derided sentimentality. More obviously, Django Unchained springs to mind for its Deep South setting and its depiction – albeit far more irreverent and unnaturalistic – of the Ku Klux Klan’s heydey. From the highly reverent 12 Years a Slave, though, we’re guessing that McQueen shares Spike Lee’s views on Tarantino’s film.

The aforementioned epicness of McQueen’s film is reflected in its 133-minute runtime, which many will shake a fist at, but, we can assure you, is completely justified and necessary to make sure those shocking scenes of racist brutality have you clawing irritably at your seat. The director's fierce, uncompromising approach to shooting such scenes (his celebrated long take has never been more deftly handled) cements his reputation alongside Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Haneke as one of the greatest living directors, and as an unstoppable force in filmmaking right now.

Credit must also go to McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt whose work here renders the Deep South as unsavourily sweaty and conspicuously unromantic; as well as film composer Hans Zimmer, whose notably rich score is at once gut-wrenching and poignant alongside the sorrowful and soulful songs sung by the cotton pickers.

A truly remarkable work and utterly unforgettable, 12 Years a Slave contains some of the most powerful and indelible scenes in recent memory (prepare your cheeks to be moistened by tears, guys) with McQueen eliciting a sensational central performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. Easily the film of the year, and possibly the director’s finest work yet, Steve McQueen is in a league of his own.

Follow Oliver on Twitter: @OliverLunn

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