Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Film review: 12 Years a Slave (spoiler free) | Mspbandj Guest Post

12 Years a Slave: Spoiler Free Review (plot outline included) by Emily Wheeler of mspbandj

Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay by: John Ridley
Based on the Book 12 Years a Slave, written by: Solomon Northup.

Ask anyone who has had the misfortune of conversing with me about the quality of cinema produced in the last few years, and they would no doubt reply with not much more than a groan of discontent. Indeed, I proudly hold the opinion that modern cinema, while advancing marvellously in the field of technology and special effects, is not worthy of any title other than mediocre entertainment. Many of the story lines, twists, tropes and characters being shown on the big screens these days are simply regurgitation’s of each other, differing only at face value. Every now and again however, I find myself seated not within a darkened room surrounded by a faceless, shimmering mass of strangers shifting uncomfortably in their barely cushioned seats, but consumed within the story being told, a fly on the wall left to watch in curious wonder as the world of the film unfolds around me, which is exactly how I felt this afternoon during Steve McQueen's production of 12 Years a Slave.

From the opening scene until the rolling credits I was enveloped in the fine detail, the heart wrenching emotion and the deep seated fear and anticipation of genuinely not knowing what was around the corner. I think it fair to mention I have not had the pleasure of reading Solomon Northup’s personal recount in his biography, although after my experience this afternoon, I very much plan to. The story follows Northup, brought back to life by the incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor, as he recounts the chain of events that wrenched him from his life in New York as a free man, and dumped him in the hands of slavers in the south of the United States of America in the year 1841. This alone is enough to twist the gut of any viewer, as they are forced to watch the brutality Northup experienced during the journey south. Yet it continues past these events, as Northup is sold once to the kind gentleman Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and then again into the hands of Edwin Epps, portrayed by the amazingly talented Michael Fassbender, where he stays until meeting Bass, played by Brad Pitt, who is a key part in Northups liberation from slavery. The events that take place within the many years that Northup is forced to labour under first the gentle eyes of Ford, and then the cruel hand of Epps, is the focal point of the movie, produced so masterfully it’s hard to believe it was made in the modern day. 

Now, within the weeks leading up to the release of 12 Years a Slave, my friend, who I saw it with, and I had been… somewhat apprehensive. We had heard rumours and read reviews that during advanced screenings, members of the audience had to avert their eyes, cover their mouths and even leave the cinema entirely due to the intensity of what they were witnessing. This gave us the uneasy feeling of not knowing what made the experience so intense. Was it the visuals? The events? The acting? Well I can now say with perfect certainty, it was all of these things, and much more. While neither of us had to leave the cinema, we both agree that there were times where we felt strained, and deeply affected by what we were being exposed to.

Visually, the cinematography and scenery were absolutely superb, and offered a welcome break from the more violent events. Transitions ran so smoothly I hardly noticed, and the harshness of the reality factor was softened by beautiful old time architecture and luscious Georgian swamp lands. However, the effort and detail put into the locations and scenery were undoubtedly matched, and far surpassed by the visual element of slavery. Violence ran thick in Northup’s life as a slave, and was shown unmercifully throughout the film. Every blow of the hand and strike of the whip went uncensored in front of my eyes, and I witnessed naked flesh being torn open, and ripped from the bone. Had I a weaker stomach, I may have had to leave my seat. As it were, there were many times I felt my throat close up, and my mouth run dry with dread. Just as those on the screen were being torn open, I felt my own mind being exposed, and I was unable to conceal the emotion I felt, often having to stifle sobs and blink away threatening tears.

Yes, McQueen and his crew have crafted the visual aspect for this film masterfully, and there was only one composer with the experience, skill and, in my personal opinion, right, who could have created a soundtrack to compliment such raw visual power; and that composer was none other than the Hans Zimmer. As is well known, Zimmer has a history with the creation of melodies that can burrow deep into a person’s mind and memory, and he did not disappoint with his work on 12 Years a Slave. His music compliments the actions on the screens perfectly, dancing and weaving through the scenes with such beauty and grace it is almost as if Zimmer fashioned something sentient. A musical Siren, always there, just out of sight, yet entrancing and alluring, demanding your emotions do its biding, working hand in hand with the dynamics of the story to evoke in you at times the deepest of despair, and at others the brightness of hope and longing. Zimmer composed a lover for McQueen’s sorrowful story, and with it provided comfort and aide in times of sorrow, and caused devastation and anguish in the wake of its wrath.

However, as brilliantly and delicately woven the tapestry of the film was, I truly feel, with all due respect to Mr’s McQueen and Zimmer, that the real credit for stirring such an overwhelmingly emotional response form me is owed to one Chiwetel Ejiofor. Words cannot describe his performance in this piece, yet words are all I have to work with. Outstanding, astonishing, captivating… every possible positive praise is owed to this hugely talented man, and the way in which he single handedly ripped me open and bared my heart to the reality of what Solomon Northup, and thousands of African American slaves, lived through. The despair, the heart break, the hopelessness that was forced upon them, the utterly unspeakable violence that they endured… Ejiofor took it all upon himself to bring the horror to life before our eyes, and succeeded beyond every expectation. The pure emotion he was able to portray so simply and genuinely is where the intensity really tested me. More than once just the pain he showed on his face alone, without the accompaniment of lights and music, was enough to water my eyes and quiver my hand. His performance is not one I will soon forget. 

High praise is also due to Michael Fassbender, who did a marvellous job of bringing life to the unstable, unpredictable character of Edwin Epps, Solomons second slave owner. I had heard Fassbender had the role of a violent, evil man, but what I did not expect was the element of an almost guilty sympathy I would be brought to feel for him. While it is true Epps is very much a horrible man, Fassbender was able to portray him with the air of pathetic hopelessness that builds a bitter pity within you, without sacrificing an ounce of Epps’s evil nature. Fassbender toed the fine line between these two characteristics perfectly, and balanced the character of Epps very nicely indeed.

Now, despite the fact that her role could easily be considered minor, I feel a noteworthy mention of Sarah Paulson's performance as Mistress Epps is absolutely necessary. I found myself deeply admiring her for the way she was able to hold her character throughout the film, and portray the cold, merciless hatred behind such a calm and blank exterior. Paulson and Fassbender were a perfect match for each other, and worked brilliantly together to express the unseen life of the Epps's, which in turn gave reason to a lot of Edwin Epps's actions regarding Northup. The link between the three characters was extremely delicate, yet Ejiofor, Fassbender and Paulson wove it out expertly, and I fairly believe Pauslon was the anchor behind it. 

Lastly, it gives me great pleasure to extend not only my praise, but my appreciation to Miss Lupita Nyong’o, a name I did not know before this experience. With the role of Pattsie, a fellow cotton picker on the Epp’s plantation, Nyong’o honestly astonished me with her deeply moving performance. As Ejiofor had the weight of shouldering Solomons experience with slavery, Nyong’o had the responsibility to portray the lives of the women slaves in that that time, and the absolute depravity they faced at the hands of not only their so-called owners, but even some of those in their own class. The torment, the degradation, the complete torture that they went through reflected in Nyong’o’s performance masterfully, and provided a key element to the entire film. A character that could easily have been not much more than a plot device, was turned into an inspiration.

Credit is also due to Brad Pitt, Adepero OduyeMichael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett and the rest of the cast for their roles in this marvellous production. Each character was brought to life exceptionally well, and the whole cast worked together perfectly, like matching pieces of a puzzle. 

No, its not often I am able to look back on a film and say with all honesty it was worth the time and money spent to view it, and even less often am I able to say I would do it over again. Yet now I say, with complete certainty, that 12 Years a Slave is an absolutely incredible masterpiece of a film. Confronting, stunning and emotionally demanding, it drags you head first into the year of 1841, and sweeps you along an incredible journey of strength, courage and hope in a world full of heart ache, despair and hopelessness. Truly, an experience of a lifetime.

Image credit: 1) IMP Awards 2) The Cascade 3) Hollywood Reporter


  1. Really good review!
    My parents went to see it the other day and when I asked them they just said "it was good", so that wasn't really helpful hahahaha

    Maria x

  2. This is very good review, hun :)
    I haven't seen that movie yet, but I'm going to !:)

  3. I agree with everything written! I saw this at the weekend and haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. xxx

  4. Wow Em - this is an amazing review!!! I can't wait to see the movie now! Although I'll probably bring a tissue box with me. x A.

  5. Ah I really need to see it! I wanted to before, and everything I read about it just makes me want to see it more :)
    Lucia's Loves

  6. Wow this review is amazing, makes me want to go out and see it right now!

  7. Your blog is amazing, I'd love to come back here;)
    if you want to follow each other, please follow me on GFC, and I'll do the same ;)

  8. Steve McQueen meets Michael Fassbender and it's recipe for masterpiece, once again! Bravo to Lupita's performance^^ This film is so beautifully raw and enraging and emotion-fueled that some people won't even handle it properly. Thanks for sharing such majestic film review! You're brilliant at it and I expect more eheh :P x


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