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Review: 12 Years A Slave

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By Grace Summerson
12 Years A Slave may seem, at a glance, to be another lengthy drama film with little to say or do than parade about in front of film academies, in hopes of snatching up coveted awards. Such a critique could be made of films such as Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, which is, by all means, a well-made and visually pleasing film, but distinctly lacks any edge or innovation. If, however, you have seen either of Steve McQueen’s previous feature length films, Hunger and Shame, you will have much greater expectations.
12 Years A Slave does not shy away from the horrors of Solomon Northup’s experience, but instead subjects the audience to new levels of visceral brutality. Early in the film, shortly after Solomon’s capture, there is a torture scene in which Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is being beaten by one of his kidnappers with unrelenting malice. With each sharp, loud crack of a panel on Solomon’s back, followed by anguished cries of torment delivered by Ejiofor with haunting authenticity, it is hard to blink back tears of both empathy and fear. It is not until the next scene in which we see Solomon’s bloodied and ripped shirt do we have any indication of his physical injury, leaving the audience to imagine the true extent. Such scenes make 12 Years A Slave more frightening than most ‘horror’ films and, unlike other representations of slavery, is unflinching in the depiction of the reality of some people’s lives. Despite this, through McQueen’s honed directional skills there is an unmistakable beauty to the film- from the lingering shots of the southern American landscape, to the elegant lighting of scenes, which offer visual solace in contrast to the harrowing treatment of the enslaved people.
Ejiofor’s performance is powerful and moving, he utilises the freedom offered by McQueen’s trusting direction to play out the subtle emotions of Solomon to sensational effect. It is Solomon’s underlying strength of spirit that make this a genuinely compelling film. Even as Solomon is tested and his character is subsequently affected by his many trials, there remains his latent determination not to let it get the better of himself. Juxtaposed with sadistic antagonist Edwin Epps, a tyrannical slave owner played strikingly by Michael Fassbender, whose erratic and violent behaviour incites great fear. The scenes between Ejiofor and Fassbender prove to be the most gripping, making it easy to forget you are watching two actors rather than real people. The character of the victimised and childlike Patsey serves as a fantastic breakthrough role for the unknown Lupita Nyong’o. She plays Patsey well, with an innocence that acts as a shield to the growing threat of Edwin Epps, who views her as his prized possession. Like Solomon, audiences will feel a sympathetic desire to protect Patsey, a desire that is ultimately futile.
12 Years A Slave is able to elicit an emotional response without exploiting its content for dramatic purposes. This is aided by the complementary score of the masterful Hans Zimmer. One scene in particular which sees Paul Dano’s creepy and violent character rise into a murderous temper accompanied by an ascending throng of electrical guitars. The music consistently plays to the tone of scenes without overpowering them.
This is a film that collaborates the adept skill of all involved, executing this true story with the great virtuosity it deserves. A triumph of a film that should not be underestimated.

Grace is a first year student of English and Creative Writing. She prefers films to real people and has often been referred to as a human incarnation of IMDB for her extensive cinematic knowledge. Grace also has her own film review blog and Tumblr.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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