Saturday, September 14, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Grade: 95/A

Few things are more deadening to film than important subject matter, as too often artfulness falls by the wayside to the tasteful dullness (recent example: Stephen Daldry’s Holocaust film The Reader). Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a grand exception, a film that’s as formally thrilling as it is weighty.

The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man and accomplished violinist who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Played with quiet desperation by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon is dignified and reticent, an educated man who knows his smallest indiscretion could get him killed.

He’s complemented by McQueen-regular Michael Fassbender as Epps, a slaver who’s at once vicious and pathetic, dominant over his property but dependent on alcohol, and attracted to pretty young slave Patsy (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, perfectly anguished), who lives in everlasting hell because of it.

Other memorable characters include a sniveling overseer (Paul Dano), a kind but unrepentant slaver (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson), who takes her embarrassment over her husband’s lust for Patsy out on the poor girl. Together, they form a far-reaching portrait of an institution of cruelty.

Like McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, 12 Years a Slave is a tale of determination vs. dehumanization, as Solomon’s hope for justice meets the harsh realities of slavery. McQueen’s unsparing aesthetic makes the brutality all the more palpable. Where a film like Amistad makes slavery a musty past, the extended takes of beatings here bring the pain to life. Especially memorable is an attempted lynching, where McQueen cuts to different angles (Solomon’s tiptoes in the mud keeping him alive, terrified slaves going about their business in the background), and really makes the viewer wait for Solomon’s rescue.

Yet the film is not a wallow- it is filled with lyrical touches (Solomon’s gift of a violin, a shot of blackberries on a plate) that make it all the more emotionally wrecking. That McQueen depicts Solomon’s eventual rescue and reunion with his family as melancholy rather than uplifting only further speaks to the film’s distinctively truthful nature- even with silver linings, the greatest ordeals cannot be forgotten.

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