Not for the faint-hearted

MATTHEW LITTLEWOOD
Last updated 10:00 24/02/2014
12 Years A Slave

RIGHTEOUS MAN: British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent in 12 Years A Slave.

WORLD CUP SPLASH
LIVING HELL: Chiwetel Ejiofor walks us through the hell of humanity that was slavery

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12 YEARS A SLAVE

Directed by Steve McQueen
130 minutes

How can so much brutality occur in such beautiful scenery?

If 12 Years A Slave were merely about the horrors of slavery prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and American Civil War, it would be a worthy and instructive film.

Yet its intent runs deeper than that - it reminds us it often occurred in surroundings so stunningly bucolic as to make one wonder how people could possibly reconcile such inhumane practices. The film refuses to blink.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northop, a "free negro" and prosperous farmer and musician in upstate New York, who is taken in by confidence men and sold into slavery to a Louisiana plantation.

Over the next 12 years, he was at the mercy of plantation owners ranging from the kind-hearted if calculating William Ford (an excellent Bennedict Cumberbatch, all patrician charm) to the brutal, bigoted alcoholic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

At various times, he was beaten, strung up, denied his real name and forced to pick cotton until he was exhausted.

Director Steve McQueen mostly eschews quick-cutting for long, extended tracking shots that almost drink in the surroundings. Yet he's also very precise in his composition, particularly in his recreation of period detail.

Prior to becoming a film director, McQueen was an acclaimed artist who specialised in "installations" - you could hang nearly every frame of this film on a wall. His close-ups often linger on the slightest change in the actors' expressions.

Indeed, it's the acting that ensures 12 Years A Slave comes to life. Ejiofor imbues Northop with a fierce intelligence and humanity, while Fassbender gives the monstrous Epps a Lothario- like charm.

Meanwhile, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, as hardworking but frequently abused slave Patsey is a revelation. It's a physical, resilient performance. The actors also seem aware of the contradictions between the high-toned politeness of the dialogue (much of it taken verbatim from Northop's memoirs) and the way it's used in scenes where owners justify unspeakable punishment.

Yes, 12 Years A Slave is often harrowing, and features the most downbeat "happy ending" ever. But it's also startlingly alive. Every moment resonates. Not for the faint-hearted. Not to be missed.

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- The Timaru Herald

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