Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: January 10th
Notoriously difficult with anyone prying into his oeuvre, Steve McQueen can come across like an arty snob too accustomed to being brown-nosed at the Tate Modern. Watching him bat away questions and squinting at interviewers like they are silly bacterium, he also looks like a big-bottomed bully.
Given that his films are so mesmeric, we must put this down to an artist’s temperament. Hunger rattled with a silent seismic force, while Shame chilled hot lust down to morbid temperatures. Both films were beautiful and uncompromising, but prone to droning thematic mantras and passages of almost body-horror discomfort. Although 12 Years A Slave marks McQueen’s pupation to Hollywood-class, the bigger budget has not extinguished a furious artistic bent that is here applied to the US’s ever-present spectre at the feast – slavery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is family man Solomon Northup, a refined New Yorker of African extraction duped into bringing his musical skills on tour by two strangers only to awake in shackles. We’re only minutes in and a sense of dread to match Midnight Express is imposing itself. Informing his snaggle-toothed captors there must be a mix-up is met with lashings. Fellow slaves watch out for themselves. Solomon is moved from wholesaler Paul Giamatti (taking a break from goodie-two-shoes roles) to Benedict Cumberbatch’s kindly plantation owner, before he too is forced to pass Solomon over to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a neighbouring plantation owner and renowned “nigger breaker”. At this point, that dread crystallises into hard terror, but given the film is based on Northup’s 1853 source memoir, salvation must arrive from somewhere.
Superlatives have been piled at the film’s doorway, most of them warranted. Fassbender again gives every ounce of himself to McQueen. He’s hypnotically sinister as the self-loathing, alcoholic zealot who cannot reconcile the love he forces on one of his slaves (an excellent Lupita Nyong’o) night by night. Ejiofor should emerge as a film-carrying talent after this complete portrayal, and supporters Paul Dano, Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt (a producer) and a dead-eyed Sarah Paulson (playing Epps’ wife) all seem to be inhabited by extra powers.
But contrary/ingenious Steve McQueen is the darling here. There are so many vital discussions raised – how bondage perverts both parties, the machinations of this industry, the slave’s need for song and the bizarre moments where races interlope into the other’s domain. This is wedded to an aesthetic that snaps between woozy and stark. Every corner reveals some mastery from McQueen’s hand, and while you might not relish his company in real life, his film’s sheer enigma will stay with you for days afterwards.