Tag Archives: Steve McQueen

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.

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.