Around this time of year a few films start to gather what is known as Oscar buzz. Some are filled with magnificent performances, some are nominated because of fantastic direction and some are just simply great movies. Unflinching, excruciating, arresting and extraordinary; 12 Years a Slave is all of the above and more.
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a musician living in New York with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott), and children and, most importantly, a free man in pre-Civil War America. Lured to Washington under the false pretence of auditioning for a performance as part of circus, Solomon is kidnapped, given the identity of a Georgian slave ‘Platt’ and illegally shipped to the South where he will spend over a decade in servitude.
Ejiofor is an engaging and charming performer. Director Steve McQueen takes him to the darkest recesses of his soul while he’s enduring Solomon’s ordeal. It’s a performance littered with nuance and emotion as he comes to terms with the hand dealt him and the tribulations thrown his way thereafter. Fellow slaves like Adepero Oduye’s Eliza drift into crippling melancholia and Solomon must turn off his empathy in order to survive. Ejiofor draws you into to this excruciating ordeal; his body is weary but his eyes betray the fact he continues to foster the light of hope.
On his journey Solomon encounters characters as fascinating as they are repulsive, as McQueen forces you to experience the stripped back, raw and horrifying reality of what slavery was like for these men and women. The contrast of these characters are a representation of the best and the worst of human nature, and the realisation that people like this did and still do exist is what elevates the story into something powerful.
Michael Fassbender’s reprehensible plantation owner, Cumberbatch’s stoic slave master and the vengeful Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey all serve to illustrate how vital Solomon’s quest to regain his freedom truly is and as much as this is a story of survival its also a story of living and McQueen injects it with a vitality and beauty at odds with the subject matter but perfectly suited to the journey he takes us on.
12 Years A Slave is a stunning and necessary drama, a portrait of a history rarely touched on in modern cinema as it remained one of the few taboo subjects of the last few generations. A masterpiece of storytelling from a director who still hasn’t reached his peak, with rich characters and centred around a performance as emotional, gripping and downright wondrous as you’re likely to see all year. Garnering Oscar buzz is one thing, being a clear and deserving winner is another. If there’s one last piece of justice for Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave will sweep the boards.
(Images courtesy Collider, IMDb, /Film, Empire)