Note: I began writing this review before the Oscars had happened this year but due to personal plans hadn’t got around to finishing it until afterwards. Of course we now all know that 12 Years a Slave did indeed win Best Picture as expected. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but don’t have any real objection to it winning either.
12 Years a Slave was tipped for awards glory before it even had a festival premier last year. Then as soon as critics got a chance to see it reports of “this will be your best picture” and such started rolling it. This happens almost every year and it always irritates me, sending off the idea that the best film is a preordained thing. Knowing that it’ll be months before most people get a chance to see it, the distributors can milk these reports so that when it finally gets a general release, everyone will be expecting it to be the best film, and it will usually go on to conquer the Oscars. Such undeserving films as Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and The Artist have received the treatment in recent years, and in 2014 it was the turn of 12 Years a Slave. The distributors opted for a slow roll out, hoping to build momentum via word of mouth that’s worked well for the film’s success, but also meant many international markets didn’t get to see the film until long after its premier. I’m happy to say though that while it’s not the best film I’ve seen in the last 12 months, it’s not a Slumdog/Speech/Artist case either.
The other potentially off-putting quality 12 Years a Slave possesses is the notion of its importance, the idea that it’s coming along to educate everybody about American Slavery in ways they’ve never seen before. This is mostly hype-machine talk, I don’t imagine that it was director Steve McQueen’s intention at all. He’s a man who’s taken on difficult subject matter with both his previous works, Hunger and Shame, and while he’s just as uncompromising here, 12 Years is also a more accessible film than he’s previously made, as he seems more interested in simply telling the story than showing off arty visuals. (for the record, I still think Shame is a better film).
The easiest comparison to make for 12 Years a Slave is Schindler’s List, that wasn’t the first or the last film to be made about the Holocaust, but gained a reputation as being an important, must-watch event film examining a terrible period in human history. It also, while not shying away from the horrors of the Final Solution, ultimately focused a positive story, with an uplifting conclusion. 12 Years a Slave does the same thing, as its title lets you know that Solomon Northrup’s ultimately going to escape and live to tell the tale.
That’s just the ending though, the vast majority of the film is concerned with Solomon’s time as a slave. Its first act adopts something of an episodic structure, introducing Solomon’s family life in New York, then the job that leads to his kidnapping, his time with the slave dealers, and his first owner, before he moves to his second plantation where the meat of the film takes place.
The film is sumptuously shot, with McQueen frequently employing seamlessly fluid long takes. The acting is impeccable, giving Chiwetel Ejiofor a real opportunity to show his prowess, as he endures his years of horror, he must frequently restrain himself from reacting the way most people would want to in order to ‘survive’. There are a number of famous faces popping up in small roles, Paul Giamatti as a vile slaver, Michael K Williams as an ill-fated slave, Paul Dano as a ‘master’, Sarah Paulson as a slave owners’ wife. All are excellent bar a distracting appearance from Brad Pitt (the film’s producer) towards the end. Benedict Cumberbatch plays arguably the film’s most interesting character, Solomon’s first owner. He’s a man who is polite, apparently caring, and treats his slaves well, seemingly believing he has their best interests at heart, yet he’s still a slave owner who sees no problem in owning other people as property. The two real standouts are McQueen regular Michael Fassbender as Solomon’s savage, complex, and possibly psychotic second owner, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Fassbender’s object of obsession who suffers worse than any.
The film attempts to use period vocabulary in its dialogue which gives it a slightly more classical quality without ever being impenetrable. All the sequences work very well, with McQueen’s direction generating the intended reactions of shock, horror, sorrow, and amazement whenever he tries, with the small exception of a slightly over-sentimental final sequence. There’s a very disturbing whipping scene that’s something right out of a horror movie. It demonstrates a growth for McQueen that could see him becoming more of a mainstream director depending on how he picks his projects.
Yet as praiseworthy as 12 Years a Slave is, there was always the nagging feeling to me that it was all rather, well… predictable. A story about a freeman who gets kidnapped into slavery, what’s it going to contain? Nearly every element of the film was as I’d expected, from the auction to the plantation. I’ve never studied the history of American Slavery in any way yet didn’t feel like 12 Years a Slave told me anything about it I didn’t already know; just skilfully presented it in a way I haven’t exactly seen before.
The two aspects of 12 Years a Slave that interested me the most were actually events the film didn’t portray. The fate of Nyong’o’s Patsey is never learned, as was doubtless the real-life outcome, but begs interest. The film ends with some text cards informing us of Solomon’s post-slave life, and these brief snippets were fascinating enough to suggest that there could actually be a whole other worthwhile film to be made about his later life.