Gavin Miller reviews 12 Years a Slave (15)
This exceptional piece of cinema is undoubtedly worthy of anyone’s attention – even though it falls just shy of greatness.
Director Steve McQueen’s slavery drama joins the likes of American Hustle, Captain Phillips and Gravity as the front-runners for this year’s Oscars – but like them is “very good” rather than “great”.
It has lots of laudable merits, principally terrific turns from Brit actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and big-screen newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, but their performances are slightly hindered by pacing issues and a dearth of major set-pieces and sub-plots that leaves you wanting more, which in turn may not appease every casual cinema-goer.
This “true story” is based on Ejiofor’s “free” black New York state citizen Solomon Northup – a well-respected violinist – who is kidnapped and sold into slavery to a New Orleans plantation, run by cruel alcoholic owner Edwin Epps (another noteworthy performance from Michael Fassbender) in pre-Civil War America of 1841.
Through a methodical two-hour plus run time, we see Northup (who gets re-named Platt) try and retain his dignity as hopes fade that he will return home from this southern hell – with Nyong’o’s cotton-picking champion Patsey battling even more severe abuse as the secondary slave character.
McQueen does manage to evoke some emotionally compelling (and sometimes uneasy viewing) scenes, from Northup’s attempted hanging to Patsey’s blood-splattered whipping, that helps give the film some truly hand-on-mouth moments that eases it through some leaner, unevenly paced, spells.
But a handful of well-acted cameos from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt – to compliment the excellent Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender – aid McQueen in his quest to weave a generally moving spectacle that definitely provokes reaction.
For that it deserves Oscar recognition, and even though it isn’t quite the “essential” cinema it was hyped to be this is still undoubtedly one of the best films of the past year that will linger in the memory a lot more than most.