Review: 12 Years A Slave a tough watch

Last updated 05:00 14/03/2014
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor

TOUGH TO WATCH: British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

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12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, but it is certainly a very good movie.

The film follows the nightmarish journey of Solomon Northup, a New York-born, free African-American man kidnapped in Washington D.C in 1841 and sold into slavery and made to work on plantations in the southern states.

12 Years A Slave has a majestic sweep and grandiosity to it, owing mainly to the inspired cinematography of Sean Bobbitt. The score from Hans Zimmer was also particularly impressive: Zimmer is Hollywood royalty, having scored everything from The Dark Knight to The Lion King to Gladiator. Having seen his name in the opening credits, I feared a sentimental and saccharine musical accompaniment inherent in many a Hollywood blockbuster, but was instead pleasantly surprised by a melodious, yet at times hard edged, industrial score reminiscent of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's work in the magnificent There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

However, much of the film is simply not enjoyable. I had to force myself to watch the scenes of whipping, and still exclaimed audibly due to the sheer, visceral brutality.

Along the way there are many examples of more subtle displays of violence: while also being abused by several despicable (white) capitalist characters that treat him and his brethren as mere beasts, Northup is repeatedly betrayed by men who are certainly not evil, though definitely morally ambiguous. They betray not through any inherent evil but simply through cowardice, self-interest and frailty.

When Brad Pitt's character arrives and finally, despite the risks and his obvious fear, helps Northup in his bid for freedom, we cheer. Finally, a man with courage enough to challenge the established status quo. Even Northup's fellow slaves were so beaten and brutalised they did not help their brother when he was lynched.

In Michael Fassbender's plantation owner we have our primary antagonist. Cruel, alcoholic, petty, paranoid, he is not evil as such, but certainly is a significant example of the negative potential of man.

That he does not receive consequences for his actions (in this world at least) is indicative of the momentous failures and injustice of our law courts. We are also reminded, as Solzhenitsyn told us, "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart ".

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The religious allusions in the film are frequent. "The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose," and this is seen in the hypocritical plantation owners who espouse biblical verses and quote from the Old Testament, at times specifically invoking passages concerning slavery. While this gives us a somewhat derogatory view of the downside of religion, on the other hand we see how much hope the slaves can derive from Christianity.

Northup himself, despite remaining aloof initially, joins in the Gospel music in a beautiful long, languid take where we visually witness the power of the music and the lyrics as his spirits lift from the despair he is so afraid of.

Technically, this is a great film, and deserving of its accolades including Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress at the recent Oscars. But did I like it? I'm still not sure.

Many of the people I spoke to about it didn't. They would shy away from saying it was a good film, or nearly apologise for saying so, almost as if they thought by doing so they would be endorsing slavery. One woman I overheard stated that she hated it, but that it was an important film to see nonetheless.

All told, a great film. But I do not think I could watch it again.

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