Watching new films I’m often guilty of looking for references, influences and comparisons to other films. In the case of 12 Years A Slave my mind, at various occasions was drawn towards Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Cast Away and, to my surprise – some of the viscerally ghastly torture-based horror films that have found prominence in the past decade.
Indeed, with the opening of the film artist-turned-director Steve McQueen appears to, quite deliberately, offer a set up that harks directly towards classic genre horror – contrasts of light and dark, cranking sinister sounds punctuating moments of total quiet, with the ever growing sense of threat and dread.
Rarely has so brief an introduction to a film been filled with such a profound sense of foreboding.
12 Years A Slave may borrow from horror conventions but this is no Saturday night popcorn throwing thrill ride. Oh, it’s certainly a movie chock full of horror – but it’s a very real kind of horror. A horror that will stir your emotions and remain with you long after the lights have come up in the theatre.
Solomon Northup (played wonderfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a family man and gifted musician, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in an 1840s America growing ever more regionally divided. Based upon Northup’s own memoirs the film depicts his nightmarish descent into a brutal, hell on earth existence where freedom, dignity and humanity are stripped away as easily as the bloodied shirt upon his back.
Whilst seen through the harrowing eyes of Northup, the African-American man plunged into this awfulness, McQueen lets us see wider than the main protagonist’s own plight, examining the ways in which slavery as a system strips away the humanity from all who exist within its constraints.
We see this most vividly in the shape of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) the sadistic slave owner under whose control Northup falls. Clearly cast to be Northup’s villainous nemesis, akin to the relationship between Andy and the Warden in Shawshank, the subtle difference here being that, for all the revulsion and disdain at his acts, there is a sense that our overriding emotion should be one of sadness at this retched, pathetic man – a soul tainted and destroyed by the society to which he contributes.
Indeed, as a counterpoint is the other slave owner given prominence in the film, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). A godly man, clearly of a more genteel and passive nature whose benevolence and empathy seems to stretch only so far, leaving him conveniently blind to the horror of which he’s a part – his tepid kindliness serving, ultimately, only to make the dreadful predicament worse.
As strong as these supporting roles are, it is the central performances of Lupita Nyong’O as fellow slave Patsey and Ejiofor who bring this heart-breaking story to life.
It’s through Patsey, as much as any other character, in which we’re given real insight into the true hideous cruelty of this world. Subjected to the appalling whims and varying moods of ‘Master’ Epps Patsey is the representation of an entire race of people rendered devoid of help or hope.
As for Ejiofor, under the pitch-perfect direction of McQueen, this remarkable actor produces one of the singular most moving performances you’re likely to witness. It’s a stunning display of physical acting – a man forced into servitude, his every moment in bondage, threatened by violence, torn of dignity – represented by the changes to demeanour, posture and loquacity.
As one might expect, there’s violence – albeit only occasionally on screen. However, when it arrives, it does so with a harrowing, unflinching eye that, at times, can be hard to bear on the viewer. Ironically though, it’s not these punctuated moments of violence that sears the heart and wrings the disgust as much, oddly, as some of the more seemingly benign moments. Acts of supposed kindness serve only reinforce who is in charge while, chillingly often, the white folk simply don’t even notice the existence of the slaves, certainly not on any human level. Epps leans upon the head of a slave as though nothing more than garden gate while Paul Giamatti’s slave-trader sells his ‘stock’ like cattle at the farmers market. And in one astonishing scene we witness this nonchalance of life as the audience is forced to view Northup’s terrible suffering as normality continues on around him.
Make no mistake, this is a quite stunning film and McQueen delivers every scene through a careful eye and considered mind. No movement, no sound, no word is misplaced, wasted or without meaning. From Epp’s dripping saliva in one moment of brutality with Patsey to the desperate cries for help from Northup, calling out in the shadow of the Capitol building.
The end, when it comes, may appear as somewhat swift, somewhat out of the blue and without any great epic action – there’s no elaborate escape plan in operation here, for instance. But that is to reflect upon the way it did happen, the reflection of Northup’s oft times helpless (but no less strong) situation. A story which requires no additional drama and delivering, in its finale a moment of simplicity that will devastate your emotions.