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Based on an incredible true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life. Written by
12 Years A Slave earns the right to be called one of the best films of the year.
If any contemporary director deserves to be in the mainstream spotlight without compromising their style, it's Steve McQueen. His debut, Hunger, already had the hand of a confident filmmaker taking a fly-on-the-wall style to the grimy art-house. Shame was one of the finest films of its year for its impeccable depiction of an addiction to one of humanity's primal survival instincts resulting in self-destruction. I'm so happy that his latest film has gracefully conquered early Oscar favourites from the output of David O. Russell, Martin Scorsese and the now delayed film from George Clooney to become this year's Oscar frontrunner. During its festival run when the buzz first began, I took it upon myself to read the screenplay. While I can usually sink scripts within a few hours, the poetic density of 12 Years A Slave took several sittings across a week or two. Even on the page it was a harrowing, exhausting experience. It's a film that needs a have a gut to truly display the length of time, but the script is bloated in its brilliance.
Naturally, scenes were cut (whether in the editing room or pre-production I don't know) and that's a blessing and a curse. Now in the film, we rush to Solomon Northup's capture, opening with scenes we shall revisit later on. I understand the decision to enter the world as quickly as possible, but I do feel it hurts its first act. As much as I jump for joy every time Scoot McNairy hides himself in a film, the transition from ordinary life to becoming kidnapped feels jarring and contrived. Who is Solomon Northup as a free man? What does he want? Maybe we don't know because there is no source for the matter. Maybe McQueen isn't interested in telling that story. At the very least, we definitely know that Solomon is a compelling character during his capture. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor I've always liked but he's never made an impression until now. His passion and commitment to his portrayal of Solomon is utterly captivating. While he can slink into the background of some scenes where he is not the focus, when it's time to shine he bursts a fuse.
Unfortunately during this cluttered first act, it concerns itself too much with subplots that we know will not succeed. While they accomplish establishing the stakes at hand and rule out the 'why doesn't Solomon just ' there's just too many abridged tales. Perhaps this is distracting just because I know the full stories from the script, but they should've went all or nothing with them. It results in editing that frustratingly refuses to let us into Solomon's headspace. We're along for the ride, but too frequently not Solomon's ride. During then we only get rare and rewarding glimpses into how he feels and his perspective on his past life stolen from him. Fortunately the film vastly improves once Solomon is free from the deliciously cruel Paul Giamatti to the spiteful live-wire Paul Dano. As the film focuses on his one-on-one conflicts and moral dilemmas, the film reaches intimate and truly challenging moments which is where the film's power lies. Fruitless subplots are dropped in favour of heartbreaking ones as we're introduced to the pitiful Patsey on the pathetic Edwin Epps' plantation.
Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen have been one of the most enthralling director/actor combination in recent years. They always bring out the best in each other. Here, it feels like they've reached their finest work yet, but still feels like their collaboration has just began. Fassbender's Edwin Epps is the film's most fascinating and complex character, a man who sincerely refuses to believe he is evil. He demonstrates the thesis of the film in that the authoritative caucasians didn't believe they were doing anything wrong. Many people have laid claim that he is pure evil, but I don't think that's the point, he belongs in a misguided world where he thinks his lust and affection is apt praise for Patsey's talent. While I may not have sympathy for him, he is a tortured soul, a regrettable and irreversible tragedy of mankind and this is thanks to Fassbender's incredible performance. His victim Patsey, played by talented newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, is an utter revelation. She may not have a fully developed character but in at least two powerful scenes, she makes the best out of what she can for a character that warrants the tears you will inevitably shed.
One of the most consistent aspects of McQueen's films is the magnificent taste in cinematography and production design. Presumably from his art background, he's great at immersing you into his bleak visual worlds. Working with Sean Bobbit again, the cinematography is reliably enchanting. In true McQueen style, if a character must endure patiently, in this case Solomon hanging from a noose on the tips of his toes, we must endure with them. No shot this year, not even in the extraordinary Gravity, has been as stunning and unforgettable as the infamous long take of Patsey's lashes. It's a filmmaking masterclass in just a few short minutes. Despite the shaky first half hour, it's all redeemed in its harrowing final 15 minutes. It's the greatest sequence I've seen in a long time and I've never had a scene make me a blubbering mess quite like it. Yes, the jump to his kidnapping feels abrupt and there's no sense of relief to his inevitable freedom, but this is all calculated to mirror the struggle of his experience and we've felt every beat. 12 Years A Slave is a powerful testament to the endurance of the human spirit with its theme of injustice applicable to any point in history that earns the right to be one of the best of the year. After a string of lightweight Best Picture choices from the Academy, this will be a refreshing choice.
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