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vlcsnap-2014-02-24-19h23m33s123Firstly, I feel I should preface this review by saying how much I think 12 Years a Slave is an excellent film. A great deal about it is utterly sublime. From a technical perspective aspects such as cinematography, acting (particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup) and score are as good as you’ll find anywhere. It’s also the only other film besides Requiem for a Dream I’ll probably never watch again just because of how uncomfortable it made me feel. It certainly isn’t afraid to beat you over the head with the horrors of slavery, horrors which I’m sure don’t come even close to the full extent of reality. To paraphrase Bass, Brad Pitt’s character, Solomon’s story is amazing and in no good way.

And yet I can’t shake these niggling feelings that detract from an otherwise brilliant film. 12 Years a Slave is a perfect example of why I don’t like to give ratings or scores. It’s technically brilliant, but let down by a few minor quibbles that prevent it from achieving it’s true potential. For instance, some of the shots dotted throughout the film seem superfluous or overlong. The one that immediately springs to mind is right near the end after Solomon’s conversation with Bass, where Bass promises to pass on word about Solomon to people in the North. There’s one long, lingering shot of Solomon out in the woods with nothing but him and the sound of crickets in the background. It’s a beautifully framed shot make no mistake, but is utterly redundant. It follows on from one not long before where he smashes up his violin after whipping Patsey, finally sliding into the pit of despair he swore never to fall into. Whilst I recognise that long, uncomfortable shots are something of a trademark of McQueen’s, is another one so soon really necessary?

Whilst the acting performances from the main cast are all well worthy of praise, many of the supporting cast just come across as caricatures and clichés. Tibeats (Paul Dano) is your typical inadequate bully, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a relatively benevolent slave owner feels like something straight from TVTropes and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) is little more than a panto villain as the jealous wife of Epps (Michael Fassbender). Speaking of Epps, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t just come across as a simple sadist. Whilst he is obviously sadistic, there’s a degree of nuance to Fassbender’s performance. McQueen has to be praised for continuing to get the best of Fassbender, who I maintain is the best British actor around at the moment (sorry Cumberbatch and Hiddleston fans).

My other main gripe was that for a film called 12 Years a Slave, the passage of time barely registers. Whilst Solomon looks noticeably greyer by the time he’s freed, I would expect a dozen years of hard labour to have much more of a negative effect on his appearance. It’s not helped when during his reunion with his family, he apologises for his appearance. All that serves to do is draw attention to the fact he doesn’t look dramatically older.

It must be said that these complaints are minor shouldn’t give a false impression of the film’s quality. Like I said, it’s a very good film dealing with a very tough, sensitive subject. Over the last couple of years there’ve been three high profile films dealing with slavery in Lincoln, Django Unchained and now 12 Years a Slave. They all deal with slavery in different ways and a good essay could be written on a comparison between those three and how they broach the subject. What I will say is that as a white British male 12 Years a Slave certainly comes close to what I imagine slavery to have been like. McQueen does an excellent job of capturing the horror of it and the main cast are all excellent. I just wish that I could say I thought the film was perfect.


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