Review: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave


(MA15+)

BRITISH director Steve McQueen started out screening his film and videos in galleries and, although he appears to be inching closer to Hollywood, he is still more like a sculptor or a choreographer than a storyteller in the usual sense. 

He is fixated on bodies pushed to the limit, struggling to transcend their status as mere flesh, in a manner that calls to mind the paintings of Francis Bacon and Mel Gibson’s lurid The Passion of the Christ.

There’s Hunger, the first and best of McQueen’s three features, Shame, and now Oscar-nominated historical drama 12 Years A Slave.

Its hero is again stretched out on a cross – although not one of his own making.

Based on a 19th-century memoir of the same title, it is the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American violinist from New York who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

Solomon – arbitrarily renamed Platt by an auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) – is systematically degraded and treated with increasing brutality: beatings, floggings and worse. 

While his first owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a self-congratulatory man of goodwill, he is soon sold on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a neurotic sadist whose white supremacist pride is threatened by his lust for women. 

Initially, it seems much more emotionally straightforward than McQueen’s previous work, yet in the film’s second half, Solomon tends to be overshadowed by Epps.

One wonders if McQueen might secretly have preferred to make a film about the villain – and this is just one faultline in a film that, despite its surface simplicity, proves to be riven with contradictions.

We can all agree that slavery is evil, but for me, McQueen’s talent shines through most when he’s being arty.

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