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DVD: 12 Years a Slave | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: 12 Years a Slave

DVD: 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's masterpiece tells a harrowing story with images of power and beauty

Chiwetel Ejiofor registering Solomon Northup's darkest hour

Nearly everything may have been said or written about the relationship of artist-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s masterpiece to Solomon Northup’s 1853 book relating how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. But there can be no end to observations on how the true story is unfolded. We know from the title that the protagonist begins, and will end, as a free man, so it’s a question of pacing the narrative.

Which McQueen does with absolute mastery, binding the visual beauty or horror of every frame to a genius art of storytelling in film.

There are countless examples of dramatic juxtaposition which needs no jolting from Hans Zimmer’s discreet score, none finer than the silent leap from the fiddler’s congenial supper with supposed “colleagues” on his last night in Washington to the white-shirt, dark-background horror of his finding himself in chains. Long takes are filled with tension. You still need to be in a cinema or watching a home cinema’s large screen to register all the details of the horrifying scene in which Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon is choking in a noose, his feet barely touching the ground, as fellow slaves go about their business, children play games and captors watch from a distance. The balance to this, in one of many symmetries, is the one minute and 20 second focus on Ejiofor’s stricken face once hope and horror have reached their peak (a still from that scene in the lead picture).

12 Years a SlaveIt’s no surprise that the Oscar eluded this unshowy actor, just as British theatre awards ultimately rejected his more extrovert achievement as Patrice Lumumba in the Young Vic’s towering production of A Season in the Congo. His is not a performance that screams out "gong me" like Michael Fassbender’s virtuoso rendition of nuanced psychopathology as the worst of the slave-owners; instead, the face, usually without words, registers the slow breaking of a proud spirit to the point where it snaps, like a Stradivarius destroyed. There are no false notes from the other actors, except – very passingly –  from Benedict Cumberbatch sporting a faltering accent as a compromised owner more inclined to the good than most. 

The sheer authentic beauty of the Louisiana landscapes is used to provide a shockingly matter-of-fact contrast to the concentration-camp standards under which these bought goods, and their owners, too, suffer in their labours. Two extras simply underline, in short but succinct spans, everything one senses about the craftsmanship and artistry of the whole, eloquently summarized in the words of a consummate production team (and how astounding to learn it was made in 35 days). Uncontestably one of the great films of the 21st century so far.

Ejiofor's face, usually without words, registers the slow breaking of a proud spirit to the point where it snaps, like a Stradivarius destroyed


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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