Reviews

12 Years A Slave

4

Steve McQueen’s labour of love

Steve McQueen’s direction can feel like having your hand held up to a flame. Your reflex is to recoil, but McQueen’s unflinching camera holds you in place, forcing you to experience the physical disintegration of Hunger’s Bobby Sands or the self-flagellating excesses of Shame’s sex addict, Brandon.

12 Years A Slave, the brutal and terrifying true story of a free man sold into slavery in 1840s Louisiana, is no exception – yet it’s not the film you expect from McQueen, either. Where Sands and Brandon were both at the centre of their own character study, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon is closer to an observer – dwarfed by the people he meets and the sweeping canvas he inhabits.

Rich and textured supporting characters – most notably Michael Fassbender as the sadistic, scripture-quoting slave master Edward Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as his abused ‘favourite’, Patsey – come at the cost of much insight into Solomon’s own psychological state.

But if the lack of introspection feels alien for McQueen, the raw and physically specific treatment of suffering is entirely his. Though Solomon is initially sold to a decent preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who treats him kindly and makes use of his talents as an engineer and musician, he soon gets on the wrong side of a maniacally insecure overseer (Paul Dano).

His punishment is to hang by the neck from a tree, on the brink of suffocation for several minutes. Behind him, children play and other slaves go about their business: the banality of evil, the learned helplessness of a race, and the unthinkable suffering of an individual all spoken in one agonising, seemingly endless wide shot.

The film’s sound design is a masterpiece in itself. The crack of a whip is amplified to gut-wrenching volume, while the natural soundscape of the plantation – the cicada chorus and the slaves’ songs – provide a score that’s far more resonant than Hans Zimmer’s oddly conventional effort.

Ejiofor’s soulful performance is rightly being discussed as a Best Actor frontrunner, but Solomon is, at times, sidelined by his stoicism.

You can feel the magnetic pull of McQueen to regular collaborator Fassbender every time he’s on screen. And though Epps is a familiar villain – a blend of Django Unchained’s Calvin Candie with Schindler’s List’s Amon Goeth – Fassbender gives him vigour and inner life, while it’s Nyong’o’s wrenching work as Patsey that gives 12 Years its heart.

Verdict:

Visceral, vital and anchored by its earnest performances, this is a potent portrait of a shameful historical truth.

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Film Details

User Reviews

    • Jareth64

      Jan 10th 2014, 15:24

      Seriously, TotalFilm, can't you delete the spam comments? What's wrong with you?

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    • Clash

      Jan 11th 2014, 11:54

      Slightly confused as to why this is 4/5 and not 5/5. You know something's up at TF when The Dark Knight Rises can get 5/5 and this can't.

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    • apo1978

      Jan 14th 2014, 14:04

      4

      TF are bang on the money with this review - especially the line, "Ejiofor’s soulful performance is rightly being discussed as a Best Actor frontrunner, but Solomon is, at times, sidelined by his stoicism." Great, powerful film but falls just short of 5/5.

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    • Ali1748

      Jan 16th 2014, 14:32

      Six spam comments in this review, that's ridiculous. Total Film you need a new moderator for your website.

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    • Ali1748

      Jan 25th 2014, 20:31

      5

      An outstanding piece of filmmaking from Steve McQueen and breathtaking performances from Ejiofor, Nyong'o, Dano and Fassbender. I left the cinema traumatized.

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    • matthewbrady

      Jan 31st 2014, 18:45

      4

      This movie was like the shawshank redemption meets Schindler's list.12 years a Slave. This movie really does show the true dark things that happens in Slavery.

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:45

      5

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    • tuktukplak

      Mar 15th 2014, 3:46

      5

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    • baileygiannini

      Mar 20th 2014, 19:32

      1

      (FILM FANS' ENTERTAINMENT) {MOVIE REVIEW} After watching the Oscars and seeing that 12 Years A Slave won best picture we would think that the film would have some sense of having a great story. There's two view points you can look at it. You can see it at an educational and message stand point or, you can see it at an entertainment stand point. I don't mean to rag or to tear this movie down or anything but, it sucked. I would prefer that people do not see this movie. I don't think they realize what they're actually watching. They're seeing their money get flushed out of their pockets. It has a great message, I will give it that. But, no way on earth is this the best movie. I know everyone has their own opinions but, I'm really wondering why people gave this movie a 5 out of 5 rating. Sure there is some good acting at times. But it goes back and forth. The acting is amazing for a moment. Then it goes back to being extremely bad. From a horror movie I expect it. From a movie like this however, I do not. I expected a lot more out of this movie. It wasn't unwatchable which was good. But it really didn't keep me hooked into the storyline. The story is good, but the execution of the film is terrible. I bet the book is way better. My advice even though I haven't read the book is to read the book first, before you see this movie. Comments: Terrible, a film going experience that went wrong, a total let down, Hollywood filmmakers need to get smart.

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