Well, where do you begin? The film industry appears to have finally gone full circle. First, back in the innocent mists of time, movies were made to entertain. The better of these movies made more money, garnered more of a following and won awards on the back of their high production values…
These days, it appears that in order to get to see a decent film of any enduring note, you have to wait until the time that it will garner the most plaudits. Having seen only three movies in 2013 that I can honestly, hand on heart, suggest are worthy of the five star treatment, I have already seen two films in January of 2014 that deserved such praise. And why is this? Not because I am seeing them at a coincidental time. Unfortunately not. The reason I have come across two critically excellent releases are that they have been timed to release at the most opportune moment to obtain the most awards. So should films be made and released for the sole purpose of critical praise?
Now, we could lambast the practice of timed scheduling, but instead of doing this , perhaps we should be thankful that the sway and pull of the awards season means outstanding cinema still gets made. Conceivably, if there were no Oscars, Baftas or Golden Globes, then it may be that we would have nothing but remakes of Movie 43 to put up with.
And 12 Years A Slave is one such prime example of a simply brilliant film. We should be grateful to all of those responsible for it, even if we may baulk at what could be cynical scheduling regarding its release. Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) directs this biopic that academy voters notoriously and traditionally fall over themselves to vote for. If a shoe-in this year for every award going ever existed, then this is undoubtedly it. Some people may suggest that it is pandering to the right audience in order to reach the awards marketplace well, demonstrably flirting with those of cinematic power in order to secure a favourable seat on the front row when the gongs are handed out.
Above all that, however, is the fact that this is indeed a project of not only immense value, but heavyweight prowess. McQueen’s reputation precedes him, of course, but this goes one or two steps beyond what we have been treated to by him already. The story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Washington at the start of the 1840’s and his kidnapping and sale into slavery for a dozen years, concluding with the creation of the novel of the same name is upsetting throughout and whether you choose to believe the stories of people leaving screenings because they were affected to such an extent by it may or may not be embellished for the sake of good copy or even, dare we say it, effective marketing.
In its two plus hours running time, we go there, back again and everywhere in between. We are afforded a view of Solomon’s life before the events that tore him from his family, portraying the man as independent, proud, loving and loyal. A gentleman in every respect. Following his abduction, he finds himself passing through the hands of many a white businessman or southern landowner until reaching a plantation as slave, sold to a rich, good-natured man with ignorance running through his veins in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford. Through necessity, Solomon, now known as Platt, simply because it was the name on the sheet at the time, ends up in the dubious ‘care’ of Edwin Epps, played by McQueen favourite Michael Fassbender, who would have the most influence on this helpless, accidental slave. Epps, a notorious slave beater is respected by all but his wife (Sarah Paulson, some of the best lines in the entire film, or at least delivered most convincingly) who holds no fear of him, unlike his slaves, who whimper, cower or fall silent whenever he so much as casts a glance in their direction. It is not until Solomon makes the acquaintance of Bass, played by Brad Pitt (who also produces here) does a light appear at the end of Solomon’s tunnel.
We could go on for a thousand words or more about the performances, but suffice to say that they were all excellent, and if anything, Pitt’s Bass is the least convincing out of all of those featured and seems, if anything, out of his depth in such heavyweight acting company. Yes, it may seem difficult to believe, but we only call them as we see them.
Ejiofor is regularly stunning and the rest of the time, just very good indeed. If he’s not nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, then you can be sure the world will probably end, starting with California breaking off from the rest of the USA and drifting off the edge of the planet. Saying this, supporting work from Fassbender should also see him recognised for his efforts, but it is mostly the work of McQueen that people should really be taking note of. That, the excellent DoP work from Sean Bobbitt who ensures that the whole thing looks sumptuous and Patricia Norris’ costumes that authenticate the period to such an extent, you can forget that this wasn’t made at exactly the time it represents.
In short, an outstanding piece of work from McQueen, cast and crew that will no doubt, by design and merit, liberally litter the awards season coming soon with almost every department rightly in with a shout for doing what they do the best this year. This is another step up for McQueen and at this rate, who knows what the man will achieve. Considered, harrowing and a trial for the soul, this will leave its audience breathless and wracked by turns. An excellent example of how far we have come and how far we have to go, beautifully told and honestly, brutally loyal to its subject.