'12 Years' is one of this year's finest

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is mesmerizing and so authentic it is difficult to watch; he has set the bar high for the 2014 Oscars.
November 17, 2013

Director Steve McQueen seems to have carved out a niche for making powerful, unflinching, staggering films that you may never want to watch a second time. His first two films, “Hunger,” and “Shame” flip over some fairly mossy stones in terms of stories, exposing seldom-discussed topics such as the ravages of prison life and sexual addiction.

He once again covers a rather uncomfortable subject - slavery - for his third effort, “12 Years A Slave,” based on an autobiography by Solomon Northup, and the results are as stark, unsettling and powerful as one might expect from such a bold director.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is Northrop, a violinist enjoying an affluent life with his family outside New York City. Tempted by earning a few extra dollars, he accepts a job to perform at a travelling circus near Washington, D.C. But before Solomon can even unpack his instrument, he finds himself drugged, kidnapped and shackled, and about to enter an illegal slave trade.

His glimmer of hope is quickly extinguished when he arrives in Louisiana and is forced to sequester his identity and abilities outside of his musical talents. His journey is a downward spiral of abuse and brutality, but Solomon looks for opportunity with each step. For if he does not, all hope is lost. Paul Giamatti is his (and our) first introduction to his new life, playing slave trader Theophilus Freeman, who displays his slaves like livestock and possesses not an ounce of compassion.

Only slightly more hopeful is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Master Ford, who believes himself to be a compassionate man, but is unable to control the brutality prevalent on his own plantation. He ultimately must sell Solomon to the pious Master Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Epps is a savagely unhinged owner, always a breath away from a beating, with whom Solomon must endure his longest sentence.

Within its first scenes after Solomon’s fateful descent, it becomes clear that the director is not going to shy away from the sheer brutality and violence commonplace in the United States. But, with that, he also gives us some of the most stunning acting found onscreen this year, as well as contrasting this with scenes of natural beauty that would make Terrence Malick envious.  While the cast is uniformly excellent, a few mentions must be made for particular members. Ejiofor is, yet again, outstanding as the solemn Solomon. We watch as he struggles to comprehend how, in a land where he once enjoyed a civilized existence, life can be so fraught with hatred, inhumanity and barbarism.

Equally noteworthy are Fassbender as the loquacious Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as his most productive slave and the object of both his primal desires and hatred. Fassbender has served as a muse for McQueen in the past (starring in all three of the director’s pictures), and he proves again why. His ability to switch from calm confidant to raging sadist makes every moment he’s onscreen one in which we watch in utter fear to see what will serve as his catalyst for violence. But it is Nyong’o who may be the film’s true standout as Patsy, giving a (literally, at times) naked performance that is breathtaking in its sincerity. If her name is not on the short list for Best Supporting Actress this year, there is no justice in Hollywood.

McQueen once again provides proof of his authority behind the camera -unblinking, nuanced, bold and fearless, he creates not only his greatest picture yet, but also one of the year’s finest.

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