12 Years a Slave is director Steve McQueen’s ( The British artist turned filmmaker, not Bullitt) adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir, an account of how he was kidnapped from his well-to-do family life and sold into slavery in pre-civil war era America. Like Anne Frank’s diary, Northup’s memoir was at the very heart of the darkness, and McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley should, first and foremost, be commended for bringing such a historically important work to the wider attention of the public.
Yet historical importance doesn’t always equal great film. I wasn’t a fan of Spielberg’s Lincoln, for example, where something as significant as the abolishment of slavery made for a frankly tedious movie. Thankfully, however, 12 Years a Slave has a fantastically gripping story. In some respects there is something fairy-tale like to it. Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is lured into a trap by the promise of working in the circus from two flamboyant men, who reminded me of the fox and the cat from Pinocchio. Like that living-puppet, Northup goes on a perilous journey. He is sold to the sympathetic William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is bullied by Ford’s slimy worker (Paul Dano), and eventually becomes the captive of a monstrous villain, Epps (Michael Fassbender), the Stromboli of the film. The Pinocchio comparisons may not be intentional given it’s a faithful adaptation of a true story, yet it gives the plot a classical feel. It’s the age-old ‘beware of strangers’ bed-time story splattered with the violence of slavery.
McQueen, director of Hunger and Shame, is a director known for stylistic touches, and 12 Years has plenty. Sometimes they are over-indulgent, such as the occasional needlessly long take, yet the film’s bold visuals are hard to forget. There are moments where characters are lit by spotlight, against oily black backdrops that lend the feeling of watching a play, or a piece of performance art. Of course, McQueen was formerly a performance artist, and something of that background has remained in 12 Year’s DNA. McQueen infuses 12 Years with a sense of dread akin to a horror movie. The cinematography creates an ominous atmosphere, such as when the camera creeps through the bamboo leaves as though it is the point of view of a predator. This sense of foreboding terror is heightened by the music by Hans Zimmer, which is strong and unsettling at parts, reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, other parts of the score sound as though Zimmer rummaged through his waste-paper basket and recycled his Inception music, leading to some annoying auditory déjà vu.
On a performance level, the film soars. Chiwetel Ejiofor is completely believable in the lead role of Northup, as is Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsy. Fassbender is terrifying as Epps, a portrayal of an aggressive bully so good he may become type-cast as Hollywood’s go-to bad-guy, like Ralph Fiennes after Schindler’s List. Paul Giamatti makes an enjoyably despicable slave trader (the second slave trader he has played: he was an orangutan selling humans in Planet of the Apes), while Benedict Cumberbatch pulls off perhaps the most intriguing character in the film. He is a product of his a time, a slave owner, yet he is kind ray of light in Northup’s descent into hell, like Mr.Brownlow in Oliver Twist. However, Brad Pitt (who also produces) saddles his film with its biggest flaw. Pitt has the baggage of being a huge movie star, and while that has worked out great in black comedies such as ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Burn After Reading’, here he is distracting and out of place. On top of that, he resurrects his awful southern drawl from Inglourious Basterds, another film in which he was terribly miscast. Maybe the role was a ‘thank you’ from Steve McQueen to Pitt for helping get the film made. Next time a box of Quality Street (or some acting-class vouchers) might be a better idea.
Nevertheless, this is a remarkable piece of storytelling, as gripping a tale as it is an important one, and is much needed after the Looney Tunes excess of Django Unchained. McQueen, you had my curiosity. Now you have my attention.