Harrowing? Not even close. 12 Years A Slave is a monumental piece of cinema that does little to soften the blow visually and emotionally as it strikes at the heart with emotive, graphic and brutal depictions of the life of a slave in the 19th century.
Based on the book of the same name, we follow the story of successful musician Solomon Northup (Chiwetl Ejiofor) as he is abducted from his privileged life as a respected black man in a white-dominated world. Those at the more extreme end of this dominance are responsible for his kidnapping and transport south to less tolerant US states where the slave trade is rife. The emotional wrenching from his life and family is quick, and unfortunately the relative briefness in which we are allowed to experience Solomon’s former life detracts from the impact made when it is stripped away. Nonetheless, the rest of the film more than helps build up to the finale – a crescendo as powerful and symbolic as the subject deserves, delivered with finesse and dignity.
The barbaric nature with which slaves were treated is in no way dumbed-down by British director Steve McQueen, as he executes his third feature length effort beautifully. On more than one occasion, the audience may find themselves looking away from the screen or gasping as torture and abuse is vividly depicted. These powerful and shockingly emotive scenes are interspersed with moments of quiet that gives the film a jagged feel, yet one which works to its benefit. The quiet moments – often featuring extended scenes of nothing but near-silent close-ups of a character’s face – allow the audience to contemplate and digest the scenes they just witnessed, brace themselves for what may follow next, and also briefly enter the emotional space of the onscreen persons living this life. It helps the moments sink in, yet also allows the next shocking act to strike even harder. All this plays alongside the music, which helps carry the film perfectly. A wonderful, poignant soundtrack by Hans Zimmer underlines the sadness of what is happening, though some more shocking moments are played out either to silence or (sometimes) jarring, sci-fi-esque sounds that can sound slightly misplaced. Bar the finale, a scene where the cast sing “Roll Jordan Roll” is one of the biggest highlights in a film that features countless peaks and few troughs.
A special mention must go to McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, delivering an impressive yet disgusting supporting performance. The rest of the cast is undoubtedly strong, but Fassbender stands out in the way his character unflinchingly strikes at the heart. The relative onscreen briefness of Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt make them more fleeting moments but nicely picked additions nonetheless, with Cumberbatch adding to his growing stature on the international stage as he completes a busy year alongside multiple other big hitters Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and August: Osage County. He clearly wants to take on Mark Wahlberg as ‘busiest man in Hollywood right now’.
Will this film win an Oscar? Considering its whopping 9 nominations I would not even be remotely surprised. The film is outstanding. McQueen’s artistic directing style, born from his Turner Prize award winning background, is more than deserving of recognition here, along with Fassbender’s mature effort making up for the shambles of The Counsellor. It will take a lot to topple this emotional monolith from the top step this year.