I’ve always been wary of hyperbole. So when 12 Years a Slave premiered at TIFF and received some of the most rapturous reviews I’ve ever read, all of which contained some version of the phrase “devastating” I was sceptical. I suspected a degree of band wagon jumping. No film could possible be that affecting. And then on Friday at the Accenture Gala at the London Film Festival I got the chance to see for myself. And after spending the last 10 minutes weeping openly at the screen and praying that my waterproof mascara was up to the task and the rest of the evening far too upset to even eat it turns out that yes, a film can be that affecting.
Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetal Ejiofor 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup – a free man and fiddler player from Saratoga Springs New York. He is lured away from his family & son and daughter by two men posing as fellow artists who promise him a weeks work in Washington and fine wages. They take him to dinner and after wining and dining him Solomon is taken ill and falls asleep in his hotel bed.
He wakes up in hell.
Chained and manacled, his white shirt gleaming luminously (the only brightness on the screen) he is told that his life as he knew it is over. He is not a free man but a runaway from Georgia and will be sold at market. Solomon fights back and is brutally beaten in an attack of such savagery that I couldn’t watch (the first of many times I had to look away from the screen). After a period of captivity he is taken south on a boat to be sold where one of his fellow captives gives him a piece of advice which he takes to heart. In order to survive he must keep his head down and his mouth shut.
On arriving in the South Solomon is stripped of his identity and re-named Platt. He is sold by a slave trader (Paul Giametti) to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who becomes aware of Solomon’s talent with the fiddle when he picks it up and plays it to drown out the heartrending screams of a mother being separated from her children. Initially it would appear that fate (in the horrendous circumstances) has been kind to Solomon. Ford, whilst still a slaveowner, is at the least a decent man who treats his slaves well. He gives Solomon a fiddle as a gift and is impressed with his skills and intelligence as Solomon assists him in developing his plantation. But Solomon falls afoul of Paul Dano’s architect, a weak, pathetic little bully of a man, fond of humiliating the slaves by forcing them to clap along to his racist ditties. He can’t cope with the fact that Solomon is clearly far better suited to his position than he is and when an argument descends into a fight he & his men lynch Solomon before being scared off by the overseer.
The subsequent scene of Solomon hanging by the neck, toes barely touching the ground while life on the plantation goes on around him, soundtracked purely by his gurgling desperate attempts to get air into his tortured throat is the most excruciating thing I have seen committed to celluloid.
It seems to last an eternity during which I wanted to scream and scream at the screen for someone to help him. It is one of many truly distressing scenes in the picture.
In order to spare Solomon from being attacked again Ford has no other option but to sell him to keep him safe. Solomon is sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson). Epps believes that it is his god given right to keep slaves and treat them how he sees fit. He justifies his actions with scripture which he quotes to his slaves regularly. He’s a drunken, terrifying mess of a man – the lord of his domain who likes to showcase his dominion over his slaves by dragging them from their sleep in the middle of the night to take part in humiliating dancing sessions in his house. McQueen always brings out the best in Fassbender and he’s superb here. Epps is a genuinely frightening man. His mood changes from ebullient to violent in the blink of an eye. Those who do not make their quota picking in the fields are brutally whipped. He is a cruel, savage man. The most terrifying sequence in the whole film is a scene of Epps talking with Solomon. Epps never raises his voice, his arm is slung around Solomon’s neck in a friendly fashion. But you never doubt for a second that Solomon’s life is on the line and that Epps would demand his death on a whim if he so chose.
But Epps is a very human monster . He drinks heavily because he is overcome with a deep self loathing due to his all consuming love for Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) a beautiful slave that he dubs the Queen of the Fields due to her ability to pick 500 pounds of cotton a day. His wife Mistress Epps, fully aware that her husband is in love with Patsy is consumed by hatred and bitterness which reveals itself in breathtaking acts of casual cruelty like hurling a full crystal decanter at Patsy’s face. Patsy endures Epps’ attentions in the vain hope that her life will be better for it. Their “relationship” culminates in a scene of horrendous savagery when Epps (believing Patsy to be cheating on him with a nearby slaver) forces Solomon to whip her before taking over the task himself. It’s an extremely difficult scene to watch and becomes utterly unbearable when the ever unflinching camera shows us the mangled flesh on Patsy’s back as she is whipped.
Solomon remains with Epps until a chance encounter with a sympathetic Canadian (Brad Pitt) results in his freedom.
The cast is superb. Paul Giametti and Paul Dano make your skin crawl as the unrepentant slave trader and petty architect respectively. Benedict Cumberbatch does fine nuanced work with the somewhat sympathetic Ford and Sarah Paulson radiates despair and hatred as the wife driven to despicable acts by her husband’s casual disregard. Fassbender makes Epps a memorably terrifying monster without ever lapsing into caricature. His is a character to be hated and pitied at the same time. It’s a performance that will surely see him get the Oscar nomination he was denied for Shame.
Lupita Nyong’o in her first major role is a revelation. She’s an extraordinary actress of immense versatility, beauty and grace. Your soul weeps for Patsy. Every indignity is etched on her face and when she gently begs Solomon to end her life you’ll feel as if you can’t bear to watch a minute longer. The whipping scene and the aftermath is exceptionally hard to watch not just because of the brutality on display but because Lupita so captures Patsy’s agony that you desperately want to look away but can’t. It’s an exceptional performance.
But the film belongs to Chiwetal Ejiofor. His talents well used in the theatre in shows such as Othello and A Season in the Congo have been poorly served by Hollywood to date. But Solomon is a towering performance that will surely, surely see an Oscar on his mantlepiece come next year. Solomon endures so much but his determination, his will to survive never falters. In a lesser film Solomon would have many stirring dramatic speeches with which to win the audience over. That’s not the case here. Solomon is a man of few words but you can read volumes in Ejiofor’s face. The horror of being captured, the indignity of his new life, his joy at the possibility of being able to write a letter home (cruelly snatched away in moments), his heart sick distress at what he is forced to do to Patsy – it’s all conveyed with hardly a word being spoken. The most poignant scene in the film is nothing but a still frame of Ejiofor’s face which fills the screen. We see the utter despair of his situation etched deeply into his face as the camera lingers. I started to weep and didn’t stop. By the time Solomon is reunited with his family the entire cinema was sobbing. It’s a deeply powerful performance that will stay with you for days.
Steve McQueen directs ably aided by Hans Zimmer’s beautiful score. The film is in many ways the opposite of his previous film Shame. I was a huge fan of Shame, I think it’s one of the most beautifully directed films of recent years. There is nothing in 12 Years to quite match the visual flash of Shame – the lonely alien vistas of New York, skyscrapers rendered as glass and chrome behemoths, the virtuosity of the jogging sequence or Carey Mulligan crooning New York New York. 12 Years looks beautiful but there is no moment that grabs you visually in quite the same way. But whereas Shame looked stunning but was rather chilly emotionally 12 Years is a deeply emotional experience to watch. McQueen wrings superb performances out of his entire cast and has created something very profound and very moving. Its a brave, unflinching mature piece of work – virtuoso work from an extraordinary filmmaker.
If I were to nitpick (and goodness would it be nitpicking) the passage of time isn’t as clearly marked out as it could be and while I love Brad Pitt his presence here is hugely distracting. It’s a tiny role that might have been better suited to someone less starry.
12 Years a Slave is an emotionally devastating, gut punch of a movie that will tie your insides in knots for days afterwards. Beautifully shot and superlatively acted it is brave, unflinching filmmaking at its very finest. You’ll emerge an emotional wreck but full of admiration for the talents of Steve McQueen, Lupita Nyong’o and the truly exceptional Chiwetal Ejiofor.
12 Years a Slave is on limited release in the US now and opens in the UK in January 2014.