57th BFI London Film Festival – 12 Years a Slave

Posted October 19th, 2013 by Thomas Grimshaw

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the latest film from artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen, and marks another point in his move from provocateur formalist to award-baiting sentimentalist. Whereas with Hunger and to a lesser degree Shame he played his cards close to his chest, conjuring up a series of oblique yet exquisite images ripe with both mystery and provocation, pointing yet never telling the audience of his true intentions, here what was once internal has become external. The film positively wallows in its worthiness, and plays its hand as a major awards contender with it’s bafflingly starry cast and major-chord string arrangements.

Set against a sun dappled backdrop of Georgia willow, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free-man living with his family in up-state New York. Respected for his consummate violin playing, he lives a life of privilege not afforded to other members of the black community. His status however is never questioned and bar a few moments of contrast – one where we see a black servant chastised by his master -these opening scenes describe an uncomfortably rose-tinted idyl, important in terms of narrative motivation, but perhaps problematic in terms of historical accuracy. Very quickly Solomon’s good fortune is cut short when he is tricked, imprisoned and taken south to Georgia to begin his new life as a slave, a role he will perform for the next twelve years of his life. Re-christened as Platt and keeping his good-breeding and literacy close to his chest, Solomon is passed from plantation to plantation, eventually ending up in the hands of the drunken, violently racist and self-proclaimed ‘nigger-breaker’ Master Epps (Michael Fassbender).

The film is based on Solomon Northup’s memoir of his time as a slave and stands as one of the most important historical testimonies of America’s antebellum past. In adapting such rich source material, McQueen and his co-writer John Ridley have reduced Northup’s life to a series of set-pieces, with little sense of the actual timescale Northup had to endure. What passes for over a decade feels like a deceptively small amount of time. It’s interesting that McQueen of all people would fall foul of such an error, a director known for his deeply controlled sense of rhythm and pace. In Hunger, the sense of time was problematic, as within prison walls time has little bearing on reality. Here, in a not too dissimilar situation, the accelerated pace does nothing but a disservice to the hardship that Northup suffered. In adhering to a classical style, the film compromises its central motivation which is Northup’s desperate attempt to “not fall into despair,” for we never see the relentlessness of his suffering.

That’s not to say that film doesn’t set out to depict the harsh realities of life on a plantation; the whippings and beatings are sadistic and bloody, whilst the verbal degradation is constant, however they operate as set pieces, isolated incidents that rarely horrify. The reason for this is that the film is too handsomely lensed by Sean Bobbit, McQueen’s regular DOP. The film is abundant with slow, snaking tracking shots and golden hued compositions that present every whiplash and hanging with a glossiness that sanitises the inherent trauma within. The film’s aesthetic is all too seductive, where rather than portraying the horror honestly, the filmmakers are prone to rinsing every iota of audience baiting tension out of each violent encounter; where the bloody aftermath of violence is teased at; soft plumes of blood rising off a flogged back, deliberate pauses of knowing tension. It plays on our own ‘desire’ to see, pulling us this way and that before finally pulling back the curtain and satiating our bloodlust with brief fleeting glimpses of bloody flesh. It’s an emotionally manipulative and perhaps morally bankrupt way of presenting what was one of the worst sustained atrocities known to mankind. One particularly insidious piece of eye-winking tension comes from when Northup pays a white worker on the plantation to deliver a letter to his family – after Northup has made the deal the camera lingers on the worker’s face as emotion drains from his expression, the music trembles and with that we know that the man will deceive him. The film’s strongest criticism is that it is overburdened with a consistently misplaced dramatic irony, with every wrong turn heralded ten minutes before, usually by some verbose, moustache twirling caricature.

The film’s one saving grace is Ejiofor’s performance, who endures his suffering with dignity and stubborn determination, unable to suppress the fierce intelligence that constantly burdens as much as helps him. Unfortunately he’s starring in far better and a much different film to everyone else.’Everyone else’ being a roll-call of starry, memorable faces (Cumberbatch, Dano, Giamatti, Pitt) that proves a constant, and sometimes awkwardly humorous distraction. As the film’s primary antagonist Fassbender delivers a committed performance but has little to do but leer salaciously and chew scenery, adding an insect physicality to his movements and a malevolent chumminess to the relationship he has with his ‘property’; manhandling them at every available opportunity. Brad Pitt ham-fistedly tries to carry off the most ridiculous piece of stunt casting this year, as noble and ideologically progressive itinerant worker Bass. He not only hands Northup his freedom, but speaks only in the most sanctimonious cliches Given his role in heralding the film into production this can only really be perceived as an incredibly misplaced piece of self-aggrandising.

 

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