12 Years A Slave is Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Nothup’s gruelling memoir. Its story revolves around Solomon, played by the excellent British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in a career highlight. A free man and an accomplished violinist living in New York, Solomon is tricked into to joining a travelling show and promptly sold into slavery.
The film begins in New York, where Solomon meets a pair of travelling performers/entrepreneurs, who invite him to join them after hearing him play the violin. Scoot McNairy plays one of these characters and while it might only be a small role it highlights his deft abilities as an actor. From here Solomon is sold into slavery and so begins his journey towards the Louisiana plantations. Along the way he meets a host of characters, including some excellent cameos from Michael K Williams (Chalky White from Boardwalk Empire), Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano.
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Solomon is first sold to the benevolent Ford played by Benedict Cumberbatch, but it isn’t long until Solomon’s educated ways brings him unwanted attention and aggression from one of Ford’s hands. Despite Ford’s kindness he’s forced to sell Solomon to ensure peace on his plantation but in doing so he has no choice but to sell him to the abusive and tyrannical, Epps (Michael Fassbender).
It is here that the film truly shines, if McQueen has a muse, then clearly it’s Fassbender. Chiwetel Ejiofor might be the lead, but it’s clear who the film’s real star is, which isn’t a slight on Ejiofor’s magnificent performance, but it’s Fassbender who has the more interesting role, mustering all of his venom to play the vile tyrant.
This is very much a man’s world and thus the female cast are given little to do, with the exception of Patsey, who is the ‘object’ of Epps’ obsession. Playing Patsey is Lupita Nyong’o, who only has four other acting credits to her name, her role demands some gruelling scenes and she delivers some outstanding work, in what must have been a very challenging role – she’s certainly an actor to watch.
If I were to levy any criticism at the film, it would be its ending. The proceedings are wrapped up far to quickly and conveniently, and while Brad Pitt isn’t atrocious in his pivotal role, is does feel like the star picked this particular character because of his pivotal and liberal leanings – the cameo feels showy and it detracts more than it adds.
I also felt the ending was a little too upbeat, considering how the rest of Solomon’s life played out, but the ending is perfectly justifiable because the film is focused upon his 12 years in slavery. However, my point is, clearly Solomon went on to have a very interesting life and it’s just a shame that we don’t see those other moments too.
Hans Zimmer also deserves mention for delivering one of his most interesting soundtracks in years, and dare I say it, it felt somewhat indebted to Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack on Paul Thomas Anderson’s, The Master – a proficient if dull film, whose parts are greater than its sum.
12 Years A Slave is Steve McQueen’s third and most commercial film to-date, which isn’t a criticism because it deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible. What it sacrifices in artistic flair, it makes up for with stunning performances, of which there are many. This is a director confidently aiming for a broader audience and rightly so considering the seriousness of the subject, but this is, defiantly, a Steve McQueen film. And that should be celebrated.
12 Years A Slave was screened at the 57th BFI London Film Festival and it will be released in January 2014.