One of the toasts of this year’s TIFF, just as it was of Telluride where it premiered a few weeks ago, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has quickly established itself as a critic’s darling and, for those who care about such things, an early awards favourite. It’s easy to see why: the film, which might be described as Django Unchained’s graver, wiser sibling, is a powerfully acted, skilfully made prestige picture. It’s history with a very human face.
Granted,12 Years a Slave is not a provocative work about slavery—see Lars von Trier’s marvelous, underrated Mandalay for that—and it’s not without some shortcomings, but it’s an involving, sometimes intensely moving experience. Other (equally strong) films about slavery—from Spielberg’s Amistad to Demme’s Beloved—haven’t got their critical or commercial due, but 12 Years a Slave looks highly unlikely to suffer a similar fate.
The film is adapted from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in New York who was kidnapped, transported south and sold into slavery before the Civil War.
Played with heart-rending grace and intelligence by a pitch-perfect Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup’s narrative is distilled in the film to focus primarily on his experiences under two owners: the intelligent, comparatively kindly Ford (a touching portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch) and the heinous, abusive Edwin Epps (a superb performance by Michael Fassbender).
As Northup, a skilled carpenter and fiddle-player, quietly plots an escape against seemingly impossible odds, his story is supplemented by the stories of other slaves. There’s Eliza (Adepero Oduye) whose separation from her children turns her into a walking embodiment of grief, and there’s Patsey (played by haunting newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o), the most productive cotton-picker on Epps’s plantation, who’s the object of the sexual obsession of her master and the simmering rage and disdain of her mistress (Sarah Paulson).
In telling Solomon’s story, McQueen abandons the studiously art-conscious approach that characterised and, in my opinion, marred his previous features, Hunger and Shame, opting for a more conventional style that doesn’t call such obvious attention to itself. In Shame one sensed McQueen’s desire to make emotional contact with the audience but the film’s rather shameless final tilt into moralising melodrama seemed a ham-fisted way of going about it.
Here, though, he succeeds, and 12 Years a Slave is mostly open, tactile and emotionally astute. Any visual flourishes serve the story and Sean Bobbit’s cinematography gives a rich, deep-toned texture to both interior and exterior spaces.
The film will likely spark some pretty intense debates about screen representations of suffering—especially in a shattering sequence in which Northup is forced by Epps to whip Patsey—while the most daringly sustained interlude finds Northup tied up in a tree for defying a crazed overseer (Paul Dano), the other slaves moving about in the background, pretending not to see his distress, until one brings him a few sips of water. The scene plays out in perfectly chilling quietness but elsewhere the film benefits from an exquisite score by Hans Zimmer which moves compellingly from swelling old-school solemnity to cutting-edge discordance.
Despite its overall excellence there are several flaws here: some excesses, some surges into Spielbergian sentiment. The opening montage—fragmented images of Northup’s slave experiences—is shaky, while a pan up from an image of our trapped hero screaming “Help me!” to a shot of the stolidly indifferent Capitol building is clunkily obvious. The early scenes of Northup on the ship being taken South also have a lurid, pulpy quality. And the coda is a maudlin misfire, especially since the opening scenes haven’t done enough to make Northup’s family life vivid to us.
However, if McQueen doesn’t always find fresh angles for iconic images, sometimes he does. One of the most powerful sequences in the picture begins in cliché—slaves singing a spiritual—before moving in for a tight close-up on Ejiofor’s haunted, harried face as Solomon adds his voice to the voices of the others, at first tentatively, finally assertively. This is an unforgettable gesture of solidarity and the will to survive It’s one of many indelible moments in a terrific film.