Of all the films included at this year’s London Film Festival there was one in particular I wanted to see and that was 12 Years A Slave – the cast, director and the impressive critical praise it received in Toronto had me setting my hopes extremely high for this film and I admit that I was worried I may be disappointed. I couldn’t have been more wrong – every superlative expressed in relation to 12 Years A Slave is deserved, as it is nothing short of sensational. However it is by no means easy to watch and it will stay with you for days due to its emotional intensity.
12 Years A Slave is based on the diary account of Solomon Northup, a free black musician in 19th century New York, who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold in to slavery. On the promise of lucrative work as a fiddler he travels with two men to Washington. There they eat, drink, celebrate and on feeling sick he is put to bed to rest – only to awaken in chains in a dark basement with no proof of who is. For the next 12 years he is Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia, who is passed from one master to the next, whilst desperately trying to stay alive long enough to find a way back to his wife and children.
This is an intensely powerful film from start to finish as we follow Solomon’s experience of life as a slave and director Steve McQueen (director of Hunger and Shame) presents a harrowing, honest, emotional exposure of slavery that has never been conveyed in such a way before. For a 21st century audience, seeing with how little regard human beings were treated in the not too distant past is frightening and truly heartbreaking, for example the cruel separation of a woman from her children for her to be told she’d soon forget them and the horrifying beatings and violence carried out by slave owners.
Through Solomon’s eyes we see a broad spectrum of slave ownership – his first master John Ford (wonderfully played by Benedict Cumberbatch) seems almost a reluctant owner. He needs slaves to work his plantation but he seems to do what he can to treat them honourably and he develops a respect for Solomon’s ideas for the land, much to the anger and jealousy of Paul Dano’s architect Tibeats and also gives him a violin on knowing of his talents. However, Solomon does not remain with Ford. His challenge to the authority of Tibeats results in an attempted lynching, which in one of the toughest scenes in the film has Solomon hanging from a branch, desperately trying to keep his feet on the floor whilst everyday plantation life carries on around him. McQueen’s brave decision to linger on this scene for so long, with little (or no) music delivers the scene like a punch to the chest. It is Ford’s need to protect Solomon from further harm that results in him being passed on to Edwin Epps (the terrific Michael Fassbender).
Epps is very different to Ford. Clearly a sadist, he enjoys punishing the slaves who work picking cotton on his plantation, never seen more clearly than in the most harrowing scene in the film, when a slave is whipped almost to death. What makes this scene all the more unbearable is that Epps forces Solomon to give the lashes until, dissatisfied with his efforts, he finishes the ordeal himself. The camera does not shy away from the realities of slavery here. We see every lash, hear it and witness the awful wounds caused. I had to look away several times as did most of the people around me.
Steve McQueen spoke after the screening of how such a significant part of world history has not been fully explored and that to him it was obvious that such a film should be made. He referred to the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the existence of a black President in America and the anniversaries relating to the abolition of slavery (2015 will see the 150th anniversary of its abolition), saying that it was the ideal time for such a story to be told. He also spoke of the fact that it was his wife who found Solomon’s published diary on which the film is based. Hans Zimmer’s score is very good too, balancing delicate moments with harsher ones and contains a strong use of metallic chain-like noises which links perfectly with the tone of the film and is quite unique.
It is however the extraordinary cast that bring Solomon’s story to vivid life before our eyes. The contrast between his slave owners is perfectly acted by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender. Cumberbatch’s all too brief appearance is of the quality and standard we expect of this superb actor and it is a dramatic contrast to the character of Fassbender’s sadistic Epps. He plays Epps superbly, with a lurking malevolence, which makes him truly frightening – we know the violence he is capable of and that it could be unleashed on a whim at any moment. Epps’s wife (played by Sarah Paulson) is another shocking character – her clear hatred of one of the slave girls (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) to whom her husband has taken an unfortunate liking is appalling and led to gasps from the audience at one particular moment.
Lupita herself is astonishing in her role, conveying the pain and anguish that her character Patsy feels. At one moment she begs Solomon to kill her to end her suffering and you cannot feel anything but sadness that this was the life people had to endure. Brad Pitt is also very good in his small but pivotal role, as a man against the inequality and cruelty of slavery and unafraid to say so to Epps and to do what is right.
However it is Chiwetel Ejiofor who is the centre of this film and his performance as Solomon is quite simply breathtaking and one of the finest performances you will ever see on screen. Through him we feel every beating and see just how strong the human spirit can be in the face of such terrible injustice and cruelty. I do not think I have ever felt as emotionally invested in a character in a film as his beautiful realisation of Solomon and I defy you not to be moved to tears by the final scenes of this story.
12 Years A Slave is certainly not an easy film to watch and is an intense exploration of, in Solomon’s words, “man’s inhumanity to man”. However it is a film and a period in history that very much needs to be given greater attention so that we never forget (in the same way as Schindler’s List makes us never forget the atrocities of war). Every element of this film is stunning – the script by John Ridley, the performances, direction and score and it reminded me how incredible a film can be. The screening received a standing ovation, something I’ve never experienced in a cinema, but which felt wholly appropriate for a film that delivers as strong an emotional punch as I’ve ever felt at the theatre and standing to applaud seemed absolutely right. It is the power and message of Solomon’s story that are important rather than any award, but in my opinion, no other films need be submitted for next year’s awards season. I have seen my Best Picture, Director and Actor (not to mention a number of incredible supporting roles) and I’m certain that anyone who sees the film will agree and I could not recommend it strongly enough.
12 Years A Slave is now on limited release in America but will not be released in the UK until January next year. I do however urge you to go and see it as soon as you are able and in the meantime the original diary of Solomon Northup can be purchased for as little as 77p (I’m reading it on my Kindle at the moment).
Watch the official trailer for the film here: