Sunday, November 17, 2013
Movie Review: "12 Years a Slave"
Emotionally searing, painful, and powerful, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his family in the 1840s. He is a well-regarded member of his community, nattily dressed, and a talented musician. When his wife and children leave for a few weeks, he is convinced by two circus entertainers to travel with them to Washington, D.C., and perform with them in their shows for a week.
The week goes well, and the night before Solomon is to travel home to New York, the trio goes out for a celebratory dinner. Solomon drinks a little too much, gets sick, and the next thing he knows, he wakes up in a cell in shackles. Regardless of how much he protests, he cannot convince his jailers who he is or that he is a free man; they insist he is a runaway slave from Georgia. While he refuses to let his captors break his spirit despite savagely violent beatings, he quickly begins to recognize that he cannot continue to demonstrate just how intelligent he is if he is to have any hope of surviving this ordeal. But he is determined not to lose his dignity.
He is sold by a shrewd salesman (Paul Giamatti) to Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is as humane as a slaveowner can actually be. But while he realizes that Solomon (known as Platt) is clearly smarter and shrewder than the average slave, he doesn't want to know the truth. And when he cannot protect him from a vengeance-seeking overseer that Solomon disgraced (the always slightly-unhinged Paul Dano), Ford sells Platt to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is proud of the cruelty he visits upon his slaves.
Epps knows there is more to Platt than meets the eye, which raises his ire on more than one occasion. But Epps is obsessed with Patsey (a luminous Lupita Nyong'o), a female slave on his plantation, a fact that Epps' manipulative and jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) recognizes all too well. Patsey knows she is risking her life and her safety by encouraging Epps' affections, especially when Epps' wife will do anything, including resorting to physical violence, to try and rid Patsey from her life and her home. But when Patsey finally takes one step too far, Epps can no longer handle his paranoid jealousy or his wife's nagging.
McQueen, working from a script by John Ridley (based on Solomon Northup's book, 12 Years a Slave), does an absolutely exquisite job with this movie. It doesn't sugarcoat the violence visited upon slaves, but while difficult to watch at times, it is never heavy-handed. McQueen's use of lingering camera shots and voiceovers increase the haunting, elegiac qualities of the movie even more effectively than dialogue. And while you know, in essence, how the film will resolve itself, that doesn't lessen its power one iota.
Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers one of the most phenomenal performances I've seen in years, and as effective as his dialogue and vocal reactions are, his gestures and his physical reactions up the ante even more. He has the most expressive eyes I've ever seen, and uses them to tremendous effect. You can see that Solomon wants to give into his despair from time to time, but his resolve will not allow him to do so. While I have a feeling the Oscars will recognize Robert Redford this year for his man-against-the sea performance in All is Lost, Ejifor's work deserves so much recognition.
Lupita Nyong'o, in her first film role, is absolutely incredible. Not only is she physically striking but she commands your attention any time she is onscreen, and more than holds her own against Ejiofor, Fassbender, even Alfre Woodard. Her performance is courageous, emotional, dignified, and so rich. I wouldn't be surprised if her name is called more than once during awards season.
Fassbender is mesmerizing as a man clearly on the verge of insanity, but whose pride and lust for power makes him even more dangerous. Cumberbatch is sensitive and conflicted in his small role, but of course, you can only be frustrated with his character that he was unwilling to push beyond the expected behaviors of the time period in which he was living. Paulson plays a clearly unsympathetic character, but you can't look away when she's onscreen to see what she'll do next.
This movie is really a triumph of both movie making and acting. It will make you feel, but it never tells you what to think. For a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours, it is never slow and it never loses your attention. It's a movie that hurts, but you can't help but marvel at it. Simply amazing.