London Film Festival review 2013: 12 Years A Slave ★★★☆☆

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It’s a bit of an odd one, this. Billed by some critics as the greatest thing since oxygen (well, not quite, but opinion is riding pretty high), Steve McQueen’s follow up to his two interesting but strangely opaque films Hunger and Shame is…well, strangely opaque. Maybe it’s just me, but I have to say that, while it’s heart is in the right place and it contains some exceptional performances, I found 12 Years A Slave quite hard work, and not in an entirely good way.

The strange thing is, it’s probably McQueen’s most accessible film. The modern artists’s debut work, Hunger, featured an amazing performance by Michael Fassbender (who co-stars here as a deranged slave-owner) but often felt like an art-installation rather than a dramatic feature film. Shame hobbled closer to narrative stability, but it’s extreme and often disturbing depiction of sex addiction may have been hard to swallow by some. In some respects, the hard-to-swallow aspect remains here, with gruelling depictions of the abuse of slaves at he hands of their sadistic “superiors”. But the story structure is closer to a Hollywood movie (it is indeed backed by Regency, the studio who has made, among others, Marley & Me and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel). But funding politics aside, Steve McQueen’s visual style shines through. Though slightly tamed, his photographic poetry has not been stifled and there is a rich, wondrous feel to much of the movie that makes it worth watching.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is excellent – he’s usually superb in whatever he turns his hands too. He was the best thing about the dreary adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, also showing at the London Film Festival this October. He plays a man (based on a true individual, Solomon Northup) who was kidnapped from his happy, comfortable free life in New York and taken to slave plantations and made to work for no payment. His twelve years in slavery feature some varied slave owners, one of them kind but weak (Benedict Cumberbatch), one cruel and vicious (the aforementioned turn by Michael Fassbender).

The scenes of violence are unforgiving and repulsive. Some may even argue gratuitous in their depiction, though they are more justifiable here than in Tarantino’s celebration of bloodshed in Django Unchained, which would make for an interesting double bill with this feature.

Viewers will make their own mind up about 12 Years A Slave. Who knows, maybe it’s just me, but I felt the movie ends up becoming a collection of interesting pieces (one being an understated and brief performance by Brad Pitt) rather than an amazing masterpiece when seen and thought about as a whole.

12 Years a Slave (2013), directed by Steve McQueen, was screened at the BFI London Film Festival this autumn. The film is released in the UK on 24 January 2014 by Entertainment One.

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

2 Comments

  1. avatar

    It is not just you Barnaby. Steve McQueen’s work is laudable, but cold centred. I thought Shame a “so what?” kind of work and Hunger was just earnest. But he is a lucky film-maker; the critics love his work. He seeks to astonish and the problem is you can only astonish once, before the artifice takes over. Yours is a very brave and incisive review.

  2. avatar

    so we’ve got some discussion of the director, some of his other work, some of the other actors in the film and you write that it is a bit graphic…?

    but what about the actual intellectual content of the story or the narrative? what about the actual film?

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