Wednesday, 8 January 2014

REVIEW: 12 Years A Slave (2014)

12 Years A Slave is the third feature film from artist turned director Steve McQueen, who is developing into a surprisingly mainstream filmmaker, following the somewhat esoteric Hunger and the challenging yet disappointingly conventional Shame. 12 Years A Slave is initially off-putting, being too much of an Oscar-friendly drama to fit easily alongside McQueen’s other work. In fact, it is when one forgets McQueen’s involvement that the film begins to work in its own right, an odd example of an auteur’s disappearance.

Based on a true story, the film follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in 1841 New York, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Over the next twelve years, he is passed between a variety of masters, learning along the way to keep his head down and tell no one about his previous situation. Northup thus leads a dangerous and precarious existence at the hands of white masters in the Deep South.

Steve McQueen’s films have always stridden a thin line between the art house and the multiplex. Hunger and Shame were both bleak and muted in a rather minimalist way and yet both remain fairly conventional in terms of story arcs. Shame fit neatly into a three-act structure and even offered rather simplistic explanations for its protagonist’s urges. It is difficult to see 12 Years A Slave as anything other than a Hollywood drama – something that is not helped by one traditional crane shot’s dodgy CGI landscape or by a few rather manipulative scenes. McQueen’s trademark long takes are still present, though they are much shorter and more embedded within the film’s storyline. Aside from some extreme violence, which is justified for the purposes of realism but which nonetheless represent a breaking from the tradition of the Hollywood drama, 12 Years A Slave is almost entirely conventional. The star cameos (Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt) are often off-putting, their sudden appearance taking you out of the film just when you were beginning not to notice the mechanics of the screenplay and direction.

That said, the film's moral complexity confronts the audience, forcing them to question their own feelings about the action onscreen, suggesting that American slavery was not a battle between innocent slaves and the evil white slave owners. Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford is a less obviously loathsome character than Fassbender's Epps - but then he is all the worse for his moralising does not extend as far as the question of slavery. As compassionate as he is, he is happy to turn a blind eye to what cruelty and suffering when he needs to. Steve McQueen is too good a filmmaker to let Ford off the hook, but neither does he openly berate him, instead showing the more corrosive side to the evil of slavery. Meanwhile, other slaves hold the whips and openly collude with their evil bosses. As well as this, the film offers a much more violent and bleak representation of American slavery yet seen, McQueen refusing to look away in order to represent what slavery is like without any respite for the audience. As a result, the film can be depressing and suffocating but then what true representation of slavery wouldn't be?

The film’s primary focus is on how Solomon Northup survives his ordeal and the alterations in his personality that are required to do this. Initially, Northup is outraged and indignant. Soon realizing that his past could be dangerous to him, he must act like a normal slave and not allow his masters to see him as anything different. He is thrown into a series of morally compromising situations and is constantly in danger of losing any sense of who he was. The film also focuses on his despair and his decision not to give up in the face of his apparently hopeless future. The film requires a strong performance to bring across this character’s duality and it has one in Ejiofor’s work, which avoids big Oscar-friendly histrionics (where other actors in the film itself may not) in favour of a quiet pain and anguish that is all the more believable. These themes coupled with a great central performance ensures that 12 Years A Slave succeeds both as a drama designed for mass entertainment and as something more interesting.

It is interesting to note that, in Django Unchained, Tarantino tries to develop a similar idea of the adapting that Django must overcome in order to survive – though he fails since he is much more interested in film references, long bouts of monologue and exploding bodies. Conversely, it is difficult to watch 12 Years A Slave and not wish for the kind of bloody satisfaction so gleefully though tediously doled out by Tarantino, although McQueen makes short shrift of the idea of violent revolution all too quickly and, it has to be said, convincingly. It is difficult to watch 12 Years A Slave so soon after Django Unchained – especially since one early scene in the former looks identical in terms of lighting and framing to the latter. 12 Years A Slave works in some ways as a riposte of Django Unchained, particularly in its much more honest focus on the victims of slavery, in their much more three-dimensional characterization and in the fact that Solomon Northup survives thanks to his own skills and not through the advice and assistance of a nice white man.

As a drama, 12 Years A Slave is most effective in its quiet moments, McQueen showing a flair for the more subtle drama of single scenes as well as in the more uncompromising scenes of institutional racism and brutality. As a whole, 12 Years A Slave moves through a variety of registers usually under the influence of its performers. Fassbender, Dano and Sarah Paulson overplay their scenes and the film seems over the top when they are centre stage, while it plays best when Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye are given the space to act. Since it is tied so closely to its performances, 12 Years A Slave ultimately succeeds or fails on the quality of the work of its actors in individual scenes, making it a flawed and overblown yet effective and moving drama.

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