12 Years A Slave opens today in the UK, so you can finally see what all the fuss is about. I saw it at a preview a couple of months back, and was blown away. It is flat-out impossible that Chiwetel Ejiofor will not win the Academy Award for Best Actor, and doubtless the Golden Globe this Sunday too. Director Steve McQueen has said he never considered another actor for the role, and his performance is, like the film itself, one of enormous power, courage, dignity and, above all, restraint.
Where The Butler took such liberties with its source material that it can hardly be said to be ‘based on a true story’ at all, shoehorning all sorts of historical events Forrest Gumpishly into the narrative under a mess of mawkish music to demonstrate that Racism Is Bad, 12 Years A Slave is such an extraordinary true story it needs no embellishment. It is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free negro born in New York state, who was drugged and sold into 12 years of brutal slavery in the Deep South.
Benedict Cumberbatch and regular Steve McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender play, respectively, considerate and demented slave owners, and producer Brad Pitt gives himself a cameo as just about the only decent anti-slavery white character; but it’s Ejiofor’s film. His expressive eyes fill every scene, haunting you long after the film has finished.
Steve McQueen’s direction is extraordinary, too. He’s not afraid of long takes – consider the monologue in Hunger – and of letting the pictures do the talking: foreshadowing Northup’s captivity by a close-up of his violin pegs being tightened, for instance. The extraordinary natural beauty of Northup’s surroundings, shot on 35mm film and in widescreen by cinematographer Sean Bobbit, only make his bondage the more poignant.
None of this sounds like a fun film for a Friday night, I know. But see it soon, and absolutely see it on the big screen where it belongs. Though we’re only two weeks into January, I would confidently predict it will be the best film you’ll see all year.