Film Reviews

12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen

Rating - 8/10

In Hunger, Steve McQueen tackled some very tricky subject matter: the hunger strike of the Northern Irish inmates lead by Bobby Sands. In Shame: a more universal theme – and I would say a very current one – for while its lead character Brandon was a sex addict, there was an underlying sense that it was just a symptom of his loneliness. An incredible emptiness that seemed to engulf him and a total lack of meaning for everything, distinctly illustrated in the film’s bravura running sequence.

Although 12 Years a Slave also deals with a potentially controversial theme, it seems far more acceptable than the two former movies (maybe because of the time distance). As before, McQueen directs wonderfully, bringing us an entirely realistic experience of the human being condition. The main difference (besides the theme) is McQueen's now obvious access to the big studio resources.

He brings us the true story of Solomon Thorpe, a free man and violin player in the 19th century, who finds himself suddenly in a nightmare when he’s deceived and kidnapped as a slave.

As we go through Solomon's journey we are able to see the despair of separation (heartbreaking when a character is deprived of her children, and her role as a mother callously disregarded), the outrage of iniquity in a godless world and the disappearance of hope that seems to vanish increasingly as days go by. McQueen uses a focus on the inanimate to make these particularly vivid; in the burning of a letter or the breaking of a violin. Small objects seem to have huge meaning in an abominable world, where things have a whole new perspective.

"I don’t want to survive. I want to live." It's one of Solomon's first statements, but as the movie develops, we are shown how that wish seems to disintegrate in time with all the difficulties along the path. We see this in the character of the devilish master Edwin Epps, beautifully (if we can use that word here) played by Michael Fassbender. And surviving seems to be the only possible act throughout Solomon's journey.

We also witness the growing tension and the absolute despair, which McQueen creates in the form of a young slave played by Lupita Nyong'o (with a breath-taking interpretation capable of leaving us in tears). The way she looks at Solomon in one of the movie's most striking scenes is unforgettable: an image that could haunt forever.

The tremendous injustice and apparent randomness of the atrocities are markedly well assembled in two secondary characters – played by the talented Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano - both exuding a sense of wild unpredictability that puts us as an audience on edge.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon delivers a secure and convincing performance. We empathize immediately with the character and his agony, as if we too could barely imagine the place where circumstances had led us. The impressive ability that Ejiofor has of expressing simply with his eyes is an inspiring trait, typical of McQueen's actors.

Fassbender, in his third McQueen-directed film, is incredible as usual. The Academy fell short of recognizing the amazing work that this team made with Shame, when he (and McQueen) deserved – at the very least – the nomination. Fortunately this time, the Academy did its job.

The staggering work of John Ridley in the adaptation of Solomon Thorpe's 12 Years a Slave to the screen is one of the main reasons why this movie is so powerful and truthful.
Another extraordinary aspect (apart from the story and the actors) is the magnetic green images that McQueen makes us look at. We see the southern swamps in their total splendor. We can almost feel the heat taking over us, just like it takes over the hard work on those endless cotton fields.

Music can be a largely unrecognized emotional baseline in almost any movie – yet particularly so in a film with such depth as this. Here it masterfully underscores the emotions as they manifest, from the peaceful quiet afternoon of an idealistic landscape to the unpredictable screams of a torture camp - both ultimately reflective of the characters own inner feelings.

The thing about McQueen is that he puts the finger on the wound (literally in this case) and no emotions are left as hope seems to vanish. Until a rather stunning and shockingly rapid rescue sequence, where Solomon's misery seems to come to an end just like a snap of fingers, as if all of the sudden he had woken up.

Last, but not least, Brad Pitt in a minor role represents everything that our societies (supposedly) stand for. "Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant."

And I believe that it is undeniably universal that – even if the troubling content of his films can be a difficult thing for audiences to love - McQueen has done prodigious work with 12 Years A Slave.