“Slavery is an evil that should befall none.”
I’d heard a lot about 12 Years a Slave and that it was hotly tipped for the upcoming awards season, with an A-List cast including the magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Giamatti (fresh from a brilliant performance in Saving Mr Banks), Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano (equalling his outstanding performance in Prisoners earlier this year) and Brad Pitt.
Ejiofor is unrecognisable from his role in Love Actually, but, of course, this is a very different sort of film. He plays protagonist Solomon Northup in a beautifully dignified way. Based on a true story, indeed, Northup’s own book of the same name, we first meet him in a cane field, being shown how to cut the cane by the overseer. We are shown a slice of Solomon’s live as a slave, inter-cut with his memories of a different life, smartly dressed, greeting (and being cordially greeted by) all he passes as he walks down a street with his wife and children.
And that is all before the title credits.
It’s a fantastic start to a film that simply has to be seen. It drew me in, questioning what had happened to him? Why this drastic change in fortune?
I have not read the original text, and knew nothing of Solomon Northup (or the innumerable others like him) before this viewing. It’s heart-breaking, frustrating and often very difficult to watch play out. Most difficult is that, as unbelievable the violence and hatred we witness is - it happened. It still happens.
This brutal film is skilfully put together; a discordant score mismatched with striking violins, stunning cinematography juxtaposing the Deep Southern landscape with bile-inducing close-ups of lashings and its effects. A few times a shot would stay on its subject just that little bit too long, causing this particular viewer a distinct discomfort; a sense of being complicit with the action on screen.
And there are some superb performances. Cumberbatch and Giamatti are barely on-screen, but they leave their mark. Fassbender deserves special mention for his arrogant, hateful slave-owner and Brad Pitt arrives as a breath of fresh air at a point quite late in the film where I had almost begun to lose all hope in the behaviour of mankind. But Ejiofor overshadows all throughout.
Overall I found 12 Years a Slave a tough but important film to watch, with elements of hope breaking through. And I would highly recommend it.