Steve McQueen really does have a thing for the embattled and imprisoned protagonist. His three feature films to date have focused on an Irish republican leading a hunger strike in Hunger, a sex-addict slipping deeper into the despair of his compulsion in Shame, and now the agonising capture and slavery of freeman Solomon Northrop in 12 Years a Slave.
With well-established life, Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leads quite the atypical life from which we’re familiar with on screen in the pre-US Civil War era. Along with his wife and two children, life is good and stable in upstate New York. Things soon change when some tricksters fool Solomon, posing as talent scouts who are interested in his musical talents. Having been drugged, Solomon wakes up in a pit with his hands and legs chained and to where the first of many brutal lashing scenes takes place.
Solomon’s story is tragic and heartbreaking, having been stolen from his life and his family and sold to a series of cruel and malicious plantation owners. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley hold nothing back from showing the brutality of the times, most particularly displayed through Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his enraged and jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a commanding performance as Solomon, always exuding such strength and stoicism amongst such wretched tragedy. Paulson and Paul Dano join the ever-impressive Fassbender in their disturbing performances as slave owners, bringing forth repugnant characters without holding anything back. Alfre Woodard also gives a small but memorable performance as the wife of a slave owner who’s life has turned around and is a stark comparison to the life of Solomon.
As equally heartbreaking is the story of fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). As the object of Edwin’s affections (if you can call it that), Patsey is the most superior cotton picking slave at the plantation. Her life though is a constant struggle, dealing with Edwin’s abusive “advances” (euphemistically noted), and the crazed jealously of Edwin’s wife which quickly turns violent. Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation as Patsey, giving an ethereal and magnetic performance, most devastating noted with an impassioned cry for help to Solomon, displaying the strongest dignity in a time and a place where undignified behaviour was law.
12 Years a Slave is in some ways, quite the atypical look at slavery, complete with a lack of the usual monologues and sequences of hope that we’ve come to know through many films focused on imprisoned protagonists. This is not a criticism, as the focus on the merciless inhumanity is something warranted with merit; what hope was there for countless lives imprisoned by slave owners and the unjust and facilitating legislation. For these reasons, there is little to enjoy about 12 Years a Slave. That is not to say 12 Years a Slave is a bad film, as the aforementioned performances are transcendent, matching the terrific work of Hans Zimmer’s score, Patricia Norris’s costumes, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography and of course John Ridley’s script and Steve McQueen’s direction.
It is because the filmmakers and actors have done such fine work that 12 Years a Slave leaves you feeling rather broken and devastated. Thankfully there is a slight moment for catharsis and a deeper spiritual connection in the final five minutes that gives the audience a chance to breathe and consider the fascinating and rare story of Solomon Northrop, a free man who suffered an unjust 12 years as a slave.
12 Years a Slave is in Australian cinemas from 30 January through Icon Films.