12 Years a Slave is a film that I had been eagerly anticipating. First shown here in the UK back in October at the BFI London Film Festival and released in the USA in November, the film earned critical acclaim from both sides of the Atlantic. It is an example of cinema at its most unflinching and powerful best.
12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of the autobiography written by Solomon Northup in 1853. It tells the astonishing true story of Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he worked on plantation fields in Louisiana for twelve years.
Directed by Steve McQueen from a screenplay by John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave is an amazing piece of storytelling that will pull on your heartstrings from start to finish. The film is visually beautiful with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt once again working with McQueen after Hunger and Shame.
The film’s greatest strength though is the performances from every single member of the cast. In the lead role as Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a performance of the highest order. Northup is a man that suffered for twelve years and Ejiofor makes you empathize with the character from the very moment he realizes he has been stripped of his identity.
There were two moments when Ejiofor had the whole audience in awe. The first was when he had to destroy the one thing that represented his only chance of being a free man again and the second was when he began to realize that he could once again be a free man. Both scenes are just Ejiofor alone on screen but his actions and facial expressions are all that is needed to convey his feelings. It says a lot about the performance when an actor can evoke such emotion from the audience when they are on the screen by themselves.
Ejiofor’s name has been banded around the awards circuit and deservedly so. With nominations for both a Golden Globe and BAFTA award already, it is inevitable that he will find himself amongst the Academy Award nominees on January 16.
Michael Fassbender makes amends for The Counsellor with a twisted and vicious turn as plantation owner Edwin Epps, a man who feels the abuse of his slaves is justified by the Bible. It’s the best I’ve ever seen Fassbender and I am glad to say his efforts have been awarded with nominations for both Golden Globe and BAFTA awards.
Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o really impresses as Patsey, a slave that also works on Epps’ plantation fields. She is desired by Epps and looked out for by Northup, with her vulnerability making it even more distressing to watch the journey she goes through.
Two other performances that caught my eye were those of Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford and Paul Dano as John Tibeats. Ford is the owner of the plantation that Northup is first sold to and Tibeats is the racist carpenter on Ford’s plantation who immediately takes a disliking to Northup. The kindness that Ford shows to Northup is contradicted by the abuse that Tibeats throws his way.
What really struck me about 12 Years a Slave was just how brutal it was. Some scenes were uncomfortable to watch and you could hear members of the audience wincing with each lashing the slaves received. One particular scene in which Patsey gets a lashing became incredibly hard to watch. That’s what makes it such a compelling film; it is as brutal as it is beautiful.
12 Years a Slave is a film that will live long in the memory after first seeing it and that is part of the reason it is simply a film you must go and see.