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12 years a slave, adepero oduye, brad pitt, chiwetel ejiofor, lupita nyong'o, michael fassbender, michael k. williams, sarah paulson, solomon northup, steve mcqueen

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Old 22nd Dec 2013, 11:58   #1
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Default 12 Years a Slave

This true story of a free African American kidnapped into slavery was a torturous but excellent couple of hours, surely a certainty in the Oscars for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (an unrepentantly monstrous Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (which could easily go to Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson or Lupita Nyong'o) and at least a candidate for Best Actor and Best Director (for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen respectively) though here it may face serious competition from other corners; I could see both men missing out despite performing brilliantly. In Ejiofor's case this will probably be to Tom Hanks' performance in Captain Philips, a film (and a leading role) which I feel shares several points of comparison with this one.

If I have any criticism, it relates to the main character's story. Not in its plotting - his is never less than a fascinating, horrific tale (though there are a few beats that wobble, co-producer Brad Pitt's wholesome turn causing some eyes to roll, I suspect) - but because the protagonist's inner journey is effectively set in stone at a very early stage. It is directly articulated by Michael K. Williams (of The Wire fame, though here he is really trotting out his performance from Boardwalk Empire) and what follows is a realisation of the awful truth he predicted. This in no way diminishes what follows, but I would argue that it becomes a story of endurance rather than change - of accepting the necessity of submission in the face of no choice.

That said, in Solomon Northup we have a "passive protagonist" in perhaps the only acceptable sense of the term: a false one. I was moved to tears at the end (not a unique thing for me), but if that came via a flicker of emotional manipulation it was still utterly justified, and played with a brevity and simplicity that maximize its impact. 12 Years a Slave is a masterful piece of work - a very deliberate choice of words on my part. No film is going to truly convey the horrors of slavery to those who have never experienced it, but we can be compelled to undergo a glimpse, to comprehend what was done, and empathise.
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Old 20th Jan 2014, 12:23   #2
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Default 12 Years A Slave

EDIT> Bugger: there;s already a thread for this. Nou beat me to it by a month. Sorry. Can somebody shift it?

Not so much a review as half-formed thoughts.

The great thing about this film is that it was made. For that alone it deserves prizes. The fact that it's there opens up a piece of narrative - not just American narrative - that has been mostly ignored. It's a gruelling, unflinching and nuanced look at what happens to people when you allow one set of people to "own" another. It's about how everyone becomes brutalised and distorted. It's about the horror that this era has continued to visit on us.

But I'm not sure it's actually a great film.

In some ways I think it's a bit of a muddle. The storytelling seems to rely very much on recreating scenes from Solomon Northup's original book, written around a year after being freed. This dedication to the original text means that the narrative is uneven and often a little strange. So at times it's a realist movie. At others, it feels stagey, as if lines are being read from a page. Scenes - like Brad Pitt's abolitionist speech near the end of the film - feel more like an extract from a 19th century political pamphlet.

And then overlaid on that is McQueen's artist sensibility which is something else again. From being seen through Northup's eyes, we're suddenly looking through McQueen's. Long, lingering shots of mossy southern trees and waterways. They confused me. Maybe you need moments of beauty to lighten the awfulness. But they also lend a kind of Southern Gothic sensibility to the movie, which suggests that slavery were specific to a time and place. As if this was all a long time ago in an alien land...

I don't think McQueen had decided which of these films he was actually making.

And then there's the acting. Much of it is stunning. Lupita Nyong'o is absolutely extraordinary as the raped and tortured slave. Michael Fassbender is brilliant and BAD.

Nearly all the focus is on Chiwetel Ejiofor. He has to carry the film. About two thirds of the way through I started thinking, "He's got that kind of conflicted, tortured look on his face. Again..." He does that a lot. The fly in the ointment was Brad Pitt whose scene is just odd - as I mentioned earlier. He can't stop looking like Brad Pitt Playing a Character in a Significant Movie. Maybe he's too big for the minor role. Maybe as a producer he should have resisted the temptation to play a part in his movie. Maybe it's just McQueen's uncertainty about how to direct him.

For all that, the audience was silent as the credits rolled... It's pretty disturbing either way.

Last edited by wshaw; 20th Jan 2014 at 13:46.
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Old 20th Jan 2014, 18:05   #3
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Default Re: 12 Years a Slave

I have to agree, wshaw.

Also to admit that, to my surprise, I guess Ejiofor won't be threatened by Hanks for Best Actor, since somehow Hanks wasn't nominated. I wondered, when comparing how these two "hostage" dramas ended, whether Hank's up-to-eleven post-traumatic final scenes would be too much; I thought it was exactly the most humanising way to play it, given how controlled and decisive he'd presented the "ordinary man under extreme duress", so I look forward to Mark Kermode at least acknowledging him in his counter-cademy awards.
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