12 Years a Slave

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With the release of ‘Django Unchained’ and now this more restrained slavery-era biopic, much has been made of America’s post-Obama willingness to ‘face up to its own past’. But, like Quentin Tarantino before him, British artist turned director Steve McQueen knows that this idea offers only false comfort: ‘12 Years a Slave’ has absolutely no interest in reconciliation, in forgiveness, in making slavery history. McQueen’s film may be stylistically traditional, but its outlook is as confrontational and uncompromising as any ripped-from-the-headlines drama.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is terse, watchful and remote as Solomon Northup, the free New Yorker torn from his family and sold into slavery in the South. We follow his journey from plantation to plantation, under masters both self-congratulatingly benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) and wildly, unremittingly brutal (Michael Fassbender).

As expected from the director of ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’, this is not a sprawling Spielbergian tearjerker, but neither is it an aloof, artsy affair. McQueen pitches his tent somewhere between the two camps: whenever Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score threatens to drag the film into three-hankie territory, the clinical photography and hard, unflashy performances bring it right back. It’s a film made for a mass audience, but it doesn’t want them to feel comfortable for a second.

What ‘12 Years a Slave’ is really interested in is creating an honest, believable experience: in culture and context, place and people, soil and skin. The result can, at times, be alienating – Solomon may be a tragic, achingly sympathetic figure, but he’s no cathartic hero, no Django. He is, at all times, a victim. Nonetheless, the cumulative emotional effect is devastating: the final scenes here are as angry, as memorable, as overwhelming as anything modern cinema has to offer.

Release details

Release date: Wednesday January 22 2014
Duration: 133 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Steve McQueen (ii)
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch
Brad Pitt
Michael Fassbender
Paul Dano
Paul Giamatti
Sarah Paulson
Alfre Woodard
Michael K. Williams
Lupita Nyong'o

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4 / 5

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Peter Wrench

Did Zimmer score it for free? Sounds like he recycled Inception. Very committed story and acting