Occasionally a film comes along that you know that if you’ve even a passing interest in cinema as an art form you need to see, but going to see it you steel yourself because you know it’s not going to be an enjoyable experience. 12 Years a Slave falls firmly into that category – it’s superb and well worth watching, but it’s a difficult experience to recommend because it’s such a difficult experience. Few films create such a feeling of hopelessness as this, but then few tackle as difficult a subject in such an even handed manner. Whilst the evil of slavery is fully exposed (and be aware, this film has a level of brutality rarely seen at this certificate), the film allows the audience to make its own mind up as to whether the people involved are truly evil or just ignorant as a result of society.
The story is well known at this stage, but given the validity of the source it’s still extraordinary to watch. The only film that comes as close to this in making brutality seem casual is Schindler’s List, but this is possibly an even stronger film in that it doesn’t allow for sentimentality to cloud it. Kidnapped and sold into slavery, Northup has no possibility of escape as the system is rigged against him (and remained so even when he found his freedom) and is seen as nothing more than property. It’s interesting that the film rarely uses the word slave, more often the word property is used driving home that often these people weren’t even seen as human beings even by those who had a more progressive (and the word is used loosely) slant.
Indeed, whilst the film alludes to Northup being passed across many masters the primary focus is on two – both driven by a flawed understanding of what Christianity preaches – and the contrast between them. Benedict Cumberbatch is the first, a model of civility for what is to come but still unable to see the inherent wrongness of the thought that one man can own another. His modest plantation owner treats Northup with a modicum of civility, even going so far as to purchase a fiddle for him. There’s the impression that his family has always had slaves and that he doesn’t understand why ownership is wrong (the film is clear in its historical approach by pointing out that for a great many people there was no issue to object to), giving an almost idyllic view of the subject until things go horribly awry and we are treated to one of the most horrific hanging scenes committed to celluloid (made all the worse by the normality with which it is presented). From here he is passed to Fassbender’s far darker take on a slave owner and the film takes a turn for the worse before the possibility of (but no guarantee) of redemption.
Fassbender’s plantation owner is similarly driven by a flawed understanding of Christianity, but his view is that they are purely property to do with as he pleases. Whilst the film isn’t as relentless in its brutality as Schindler’s List, the level with which it explores the brutality is far more shocking, with beatings delivered with a casual disdain. Culminating in a scene that shows how far even Northup’s humanity has been eroded away from him, it’s an interesting companion to last year’s Django Unchained – there the brutality was presented as a means of revenge, here there’s no possibility of it.
Both Fassbender & Ejiofor deserve numerous plaudits for their contrasting performances. Fassbender’s is all bubbling sadism and vocal elegance, whilst Ejiofor (long second fiddle in many good films) is quietly understated, often relying solely on the eyes or a small mouth gesture to convey his emotions (or his reaction to the brutality as he struggles to maintain his humanity). Everyone else is similarly superb, albeit overshadowed by these two giant performances – it’s difficult not to watch Fassbender despite the horrors he inflicts.
Even without the subject matter and superb acting, the film would be worth watching for the direction. McQueen’s art background shows through, for a film about an ugly subject it’s starkly beautiful to look at. One early shot of the paddle of a steamer stands out in not only the simplicity of it but also because we’ve never seen it’s like before. Shots are composed to fill the frame, with small background details often as important (if not more so) than the foreground, and often continue on for far longer than is comfortable, pushing the limits of what we can take – this is not a film that offers any relief prior to the end. The sound design is also superb, with the sounds of nature often merging with the score (jarringly modern, but all the better for it). All of it fits together to create an atmosphere of oppression and dread throughout, the small moments of relief coming from displays of humanity rather than humour.
Can I recommend it? Wholeheartedly, but with the caveat that you need to be fully prepared for it. This is not an easy film to watch, at the showing I went to there were walkouts, but that doesn’t diminish it. It is a superb piece of filmmaking – relevant without being preaching and directed as if it were the last chance the director ever had of making a film, and already easy to see as the high watermark for the year.