Tag Archives: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave + Downton Abbey = Belle

21 Jun

Ever wondered what would happen if you crossed 12 Years A Slave with Downton Abbey? Oh. You didn’t? All the same, we now have the answer. You get the handsomely shot, impeccably acted British costume drama Belle.

Like 12 Years, Belle is based on historical fact. Unlike 12 Years, which adapted Northrup’s own personal diary, what little is known of the original “Belle” is given considerable embellishment by writer Misan Sagay.

We do know that, as the illegitimate “mulatto” daughter of a British nobleman and a black slave, Belle was raised as one of the family by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, and that she was immortalised in a famous portrait playing with her white cousin as an equal. We also know that, as Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield was called upon to pass judgement on a court case vital to the legitimacy of the slave trade. However the intersection of these stories, and the love interest that impinges on the politics, is pure fiction.

The result could easily have been risible. The searing drama of 12 Years is kick-started by Northrup being betrayed, kidnapped, and sold into brutal slavery. The more sedate drama in Belle hinges, for the first third of the film at least, on her mild irritation at not being permitted to dine with guests at Kenwood House, but only to join them for after-dinner drinks.

But as Belle discovers more about the brutal treatment of slaves, as gradually revealed by the precedent-setting Zong case over which her great uncle is presiding, and encounters genuine, naked prejudice for herself (at the hands of Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy), petulance over class distinctions gives way to a slow-burning and righteous anger. In a deft piece of scriptwriting, she also comes to realise that all women, even noble-born white women, are little more than pampered slaves in the male-dominated society of the late 18th century.

12 Years, as filmed by Steve McQueen, is a genuine work of art. Belle, as expertly filmed by Streatham girl and Grange Hill graduate Amma Asante, is more a work of artifice. But it’s an impeccably realised and structured one, with a career-best performance from the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson as the Earl of Mansfield and a star-making turn from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, that by the end arouses in the viewer real fury, and real tears. To say that it comes second-best to this year’s worthy Oscar-winner is by no means a slight. Go see.

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Academy Awards 2014: the winners and blingers of an Oscar night with no grouches

3 Mar

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That was actually a pretty great Oscar ceremony. Jennifer “J-Law” Lawrence took a little tumble before it even began this time, back on the red carpet. Any more trips and she’ll get sponsored by Expedia.com. As for the compere, Ellen Degeneres was never going to sail too close to the edge – a blessing, after the Seth McFarlane “boobies” embarrassment of last year – but she did bring a breath of fresh air.

She broke Twitter, briefly, by organising the most celebtastic selfie of all time (above), and, surreally, ordered in pizza. Chiwetel Ejiofor took the first slice; Harrison Ford looked at his dubiously, as though inspecting an archaeological relic. Ellen’s Oscars seemed to break down the barriers between celebrity and public, toppling the screen icons from a pedestal that most of them never wanted to be on in the first place. Though of course J-Law toppled from hers first.

Most of all, though, it helped that this was the strongest year for film in ages: there was never a moment where you thought, “the Oscar went to whaaaat?” And so, without further ado, the winners are…

Best Film: 12 Years A Slave. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! So happy to see justice done. It is an extraordinary film. Chief producer Brad Pitt nobly and sensibly turned the speech over straight away to co-producer/director Steve McQueen, who was a sweet mess of nerves. He read out a long list of thanks, saying “I’m sorry about this” in a very British way for taking so long about it, and when he had finished, bounced up and down across the stage like a cuddly pogo stick. Brilliant.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón. I loved loved loved Gravity, but I wish Steve McQueen had won for 12 Years A Slave. Still, a worthy winner. Great to have two foreign art-movie directors vying for Hollywood’s most glittering prize.

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey. Gutted that Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t win this, but he’s unlucky to have come up against one of the strongest fields in ages. McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s own, and he was extraordinary in Dallas Buyers Club: a complete transformation. And he did say “all right all right all right” in his speech.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett. Well of course. Always the bookies’ favourite, and it really couldn’t be otherwise. She absolutely carries Blue Jasmine, and what’s more, she’s about the only person ever in a Woody Allen film not to sound exactly like Woody Allen. “Julia hashtag suck it,” Blanchett said to Julia Roberts in her speech, continuing “The world is round, people!” Love her.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto. He didn’t win me over. He was maybe as good as he could be in a part that was just a rainbow coalition of clichés, but I would rather have seen Jonah Hill win for his gutsy, literally balls-out performance in Wolf Of Wall Street.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o. Yay!!! J-Law was fantastic in American Hustle, but we already know she’s that good. Lupita, however, is a new, fresh, raw talent, and so elegant and dignified off screen and in her speech: “When I look down at this little statue, may it remind me and every child that no matter where you are from your dreams are valid.” Somehow she makes this utterly heartfelt and charming, not hokey as you would expect.

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze. Oooh, good for him! Her was a fresh, quirky, thought-provoking script, but I’m still surprised that the American Hustle bandwagon petered out quite so comprehensively as not to win this.

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave. Fantastic to win this, I’m all for 12 Years winning as many as possible, though as Ridley himself said in the speech, the main credit goes to Solomon Northup. Scary speech by presenter Robert De Niro, incidentally: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing,” he said. “Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” Thanks, Bob! Mostly, it’s scary because it’s true.

Pride and prejudice: the Oscar link between Dallas Buyers Club and Twelve Years A Slave

23 Feb

Okay, so having now seen Dallas Buyers Club, it’s going to be a closer Oscar race than I thought for Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years A Slave. The Academy has loved a physical transformation ever since De Niro piled on the pounds for Raging Bull. Here the famously pec-tastic Mathew McConaughey slims down alarmingly to play a straight rodeo roughrider afflicted with HIV.

The two films are intriguingly similar, in that each uses a Trojan Horse to smuggle a minority subject into the hearts of majority film-goers. If Solomon Northup had not been a free man illegally sold into slavery, but born into it instead, it might have been harder for the audience to identify with his plight. If Ron Woodruff had been a gay HIV sufferer, he might not tug on the heartstrings of Middle America.

But apart from McConaughey’s gutsy, livewire, enormously affecting performance, Dallas Buyers Club is not half the film that Twelve Years A Slave is. The supporting characters, though well acted, are little more than stereotypes: from the drag queen with a disapproving banker father to the good ol’ boys who turn against their former friend when they learn he has the disease. There’s a battle with the FDA, but it’s sketchily developed; and the closing caption pretty much undercuts Woodruff’s mission throughout the film rather than supporting it as intended.

It is powerfully affecting, though, especially if you lived through that terrible period. The HIV drugs war was starkly illustrated for me at Time Out, in the late ‘80s: the much-loved receptionist/Gay editor was HIV-positive (though few knew at the time why it was forbidden to throw him into the pool at the party in Porchester Baths, and did it anyway), and he died before effective drugs were developed. The features editor, Tim Clark, one of the liveliest, cleverest, funniest, warmest people I have ever known, was initially given months to live, but science caught up just in time, giving him well over a decade.

And it’s important to have this reminder, as with 12 Years A Slave, just how recent are our sins as a society. While everyone is sneering at Russia for their backward laws forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality, we should recall with shame that they are a carbon copy of Britain’s own Section 28 legislation, passed by Thatcher’s government just when gay people needed the most support.

Meanwhile, as I was waiting in Chicago on Friday for my delayed flight back to London, the TV news was full of the new Arizona bill which allows Christian business owners to discriminate against gay people. Is the US heading for segregation all over again, with gays instead of blacks?

Never were two Oscar contenders more timely, more needed, and more closely matched.

Experimenting with a new blog filtering programme, http://www.blogdash.com/full_profile/?claim_code=ec939413da13e0427871df185e1cb971

The Oscar nominations are in: Gravity and 12 Years A Slave get Hustled

16 Jan

The Oscar nominations have just been announced. I’ve been glued to the live stream, co-hosted by Chris Hemsworth. American Hustle and Gravity are ostensibly the main contenders, with (by my count) ten nominations each, but I have a feeling Gravity may do better; and 12 Years A Slave, only just trailing with nine nominations, has the best chance of all. Other well nominated films include Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street and Blue Jasmine. Who’ll win? The debate starts here:

Best Movie: Nominees are American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

I half-fancy Gravity’s chances, even though it’s trailing third at the bookies (which makes it a worthwhile bet, odds-wise). When I saw 12 Years in preview a couple of months ago, it was easily my pick for the Oscar. Then I saw Gravity three days later – a film that couldn’t be more different, except they were both, essentially, mainstream movies shot by art-movie directors – and thought it had a strong chance.

The key thing is that it’s rare for the Academy to buck public sentiment entirely for the main award. And though critics mostly loved 12 Years, it took just under $40m in the US. The schmaltzier The Butler, by contrast, while no one’s idea of a Best Movie, took $116m.

Gravity took $256 million in the US; it also stars Sandra and George who are universally loved in Hollywood; and it can be enjoyed without controversy by any age, race or class. It would, however, be the first science-fiction movie ever to win – though when I said this to my film-student son, he argued out that’s it’s not really science-fiction; it’s just set in space.

Best Actor: Nominees are Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetl Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey

As I wrote last week in my review of 12 Years, it is inconceivable that Chiwetl Ejiofor will not win Best Actor. Yes, the Golden Globe went to Matthew McConaughey, for Dallas Buyers Club, and that’s also an Important Issue Film (about AIDS), which helps (plus see my update here). But not only does Ejiofor thoroughly and objectively deserve it, in the past the Academy has been so desperate to redress a perceived racial bias in award-giving that they donked the Oscar to, whisper it, Halle Berry. A bit hard on Tom Hanks, incidentally, not to be nominated, but this was a good year.

Best Actress: Nominees are Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep

Surely Cate Blanchett. I thought Sandra Bullock might have a chance for Gravity, as she’s so darn likeable in it and carries the whole film, then I finally caught up with Blue Jasmine. Blanchett not only makes her horrible, shallow, self-absorbed, clothes-horse character astonishingly sympathetic and vulnerable, she’s about the only person ever in a Woody Allen film who’s managed not to sound like Woody Allen.

Best Director: Nominees are David O Russell, Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne, Steve McQueen, Martin Scorsese

The bookies favour Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, but I reckon Steve McQueen will still edge it for 12 Years. Both are worthy. As a sometime film critic, I mentally grade all the films I see. I give five stars rarely; to maybe three or four films a year. Five-star films, to me, are not just superb in all respects, but the product of a singular vision: in other words, you cannot imagine any other director having made just that film. Argo, which won last year, only rates four stars in my book; but then 2012 was a much leaner year for good films than 2013. I think, only slightly cynically, that it will be hard to resist the attraction of garlanding the first winning black director in Oscar history (McQueen is only the third even to be nominated).

Best Original Screenplay: Nominees are American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska

This is toughest of the lot. What a great selection. Blue Jasmine has a chance, but continuing Woody Allen controversy will likely scotch it, and American Hustle will edge to victory. David O Russell writes knock-out scripts, and this will be consolation on missing out on the big awards. Note that Gravity is absent. Seems other people may have agreed with David Hare’s scathing assessment.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Nominees are Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

The success of 12 Years is not so obviously in its script, well though it draws upon the ornate speech of the age. Either Captain Phillips or more probably The Wolf of Wall Street will take this as a consolation prize.

The winners are announced on March 2. For my backstage tour of the Academy Awards’ Kodak/Dolby Theatre, click here.

Why 12 Years A Slave is already the film of the year

10 Jan
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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup with his demented ‘owner’ (Michael Fassbender)

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.

Hooray for London Hollywood: 5 highlights from 1 year and 100 blog posts

19 Nov

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This is my 100th post. It’s also a year since I started LondonHollywood.net.

A big thank you to all readers, with an extra peck on the cheek to anyone who Shares or Retweets or even Comments when they like a post.

I’m passionate about film; that’s why I do this. It’s good to spread the love. [Though if any commissioning editors read this, I am still more than happy to write for money, as well as love!]

In celebration of a year of blogging, these were the highlights. Click the links to read the posts.

Most popular: My four-part interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, ranging from Sherlock to Madonna to his time with Tibetan monks. The Cumberbabes went nuts for this — at one stage racking up 3,000 views a day

Most unpopular: To the horror of many, I greeted Django Unchained with something less than rapture. Now that I have seen 12 Years A Slave (coming soon to this blog), I stand by my opinion even more firmly. 

Most epic: Colonel Badd, the short film I co-wrote, was accepted into the Court Métrage section of the Cannes Film Festival. I went out there, writing 11 blogs: half were from this trip, half from my 1997 diary from when I went out there with Jon Ronson as Editor of Time Out. Divine madness, with a cast that includes Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, Jonathan King, Alan Parker, Paul Kaye and the Spice Girls. 

Only slightly less epic: I wrote ten blogs on the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, for those who couldn’t be there, ranging from one-on-one interviews to panels on better writing. Four posts were on the irrepressible Joe “Basic Instinct” Eszterhas, the highest-paid screenwriter of all time. Trust me, they’re a hoot. 

Most controversial: I wrote two blogs about heart-breaking YouTube videos by bullied teens, two of whom went on to commit suicide. One man, ‘Philip Rose’, wrote to me many times, at some length, saying the story of Amanda Todd is not all it seems; he then started his own blog, here. Intriguing. Murky. Very hard to unravel. 

So there it is. Hope to see you back here soon (bring your friends!), and here’s to the next year. A short version of this URL, btw, is www.londonhollywood.net.