Reviewed by Ian Forbes
A lot of buzz has been generated over 12 Years a Slave. Considering the director and subject material, that’s not too surprising. For those who think in terms of year-end consideration, factoring in slavery, the actors, and Steve McQueen’s track record, this is built for the awards season. The real question is whether or not the film ends up being more than just Oscar bait.
Having thought about this for nearly a week since I saw a screening, I’m not quite sure. While I appreciate that this is based on a true story and its a remarkable and heartbreaking one, they’re just seems to be too much calculation in the way that this is being released. I wish I could put it into words a little bit better but it just feels like a film people are meant to hold in high regard but it left me feeling a little cold and cynical.
There’s no doubt that the tale of Solomon Northup is one that leaves a stain on the notion that deep down inside people are inherently good. However, telling a story about the ills and wrongs of slavery isn’t presenting anything new to the discourse. Perhaps it’s because I’m a critic and I see so many films every year but too often I see the motivation behind the scenes rather than the passion for the subject matter itself. That’s not to say I don’t think the filmmakers here aren’t passionate about presenting this story, there’s just something so almost formulaic to the way in which the story is presented that its hard for me to see beyond that cynicism.
One thing audiences should bear in mind is that this is a graphic film at times. Some of the beating and whipping of Solomon and other slaves won’t be easy for some people to sit through. The converse of that lies in the slow pacing of the movie. While the story spans 12 years, I found myself wondering if I had spent that long in my seat. The third quarter of the movie seems somewhat redundant as by that point, the plight of Solomon is well enough understood that dragging it out doesn’t seem to add enough to the overall experience to warrant the extra time. What makes it understandable is this being based on a true story, and removing these elements would be an omission of events.
That being said, the central performances are quite excellent. Of course it all starts with Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s been on a short list of actors whose involvement instantly grabs my attention and he doesn’t disappoint here. Where he truly embodies the character are in the unspoken moments when the inner battle between his innate gentle nature and his desire to survive at any cost collide.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender play the primary two slave owners. Cumberbatch seemingly is the more human of the two but in being so much more aware of how wrong the practice of slavery is, it creates the question whether or not the unbridled rage and ignorance of Fassbender is truly the more sympathetic of the two. It’s in these characters where the spotlight on morality, or the lack thereof, shines the brightest.
One of the most noticeable production elements that consistently broke my connection to the story was the score. While I liked some of the loud and contrasting segments there was a central theme that played at nearly all the obvious emotional moments. The music itself was pretty but it felt like the movie telling the audience what a good moment it was for them to use their Kleenex. If there had been more to the theme, and it was varied in key or rhythm, it likely would have been more effective and less distracting.
The other factor that I just could never wrap my brain around was the inclusion of Brad Pitt. While I was aware from the opening credits his production company had a hand in the movie, when his bearded mug shows up on screen, I almost completely forgot I was in the slavery-era South. I’ve always liked him as an actor but putting him in front of the camera tested my suspension of disbelief mightily.
Coming to terms with the overall result is tricky. Had this been a fictional representation of the era, I’d find no way to see past the attempt to curry favor with those who hand out statuettes every year. However, this is based on a true story and so it isn’t quite fair to knock some elements of the plot progression as much as I instinctively want to do. I also know that I’m in a very small circle of people not effusively heaping praise upon the movie so take that for what you will.
The movie is well made and the overwhelming majority of the actors give fine performances. If you were looking forward to seeing the film, I would be hard pressed to stop you. 12 Years a Slave does almost everything right but it failed to draw me fully into its grasp. Unfortunately, that’s one of the most important aspects for me when I watch a film and while I can appreciate the quality of the work, it just missed the mark for me personally.
12 Years a Slave is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
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