Steve McQueen’s newest film is nowhere near as cutting edge as his earlier works. It feels a little bit like an easy way into the mainstream eye, helped along by timing a film about slavery to coincide with an anniversary of its abolition. This doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable though.
McQueen sticks with his tried and tested formula of really delving into the mind of one character. It takes about half an hour of McQueen’s script and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance combined to make the audience completely engaged with Solomon’s character. By focusing so closely on one man his plight becomes the most important, his suffering the most bitter. His actions border on the egotistical, but it is understood as survival instinct and so Solomon never loses the audience’s sympathy.
This is not to say that there are not other great performances or characters. Lupita Nyong’o gives a harrowing performance as Patsey, the unfortunate favourite of the plantation owner. Paul Dano, while his role is barely more than a cameo, is electrifying for every second that he is on screen. His interpretation of a slave-driver is deliciously evil and amoral. It is a testament to McQueen that, although these characters are clearly the villains, there is never any demonization in his presentation. It’s all very matter of fact. I remember watching Spielberg’s Amistad and being irritated by the many details which existed only to firmly delineate right from wrong. It felt like a filmmaker uncertain about his material, resorting to a sledgehammer to crack a nut. McQueen doesn’t fall into this trap, right and wrong are self-evident in 12 Years A Slave and so it can be presented dispassionately.
The film could have been excessively harrowing if it were not so beautiful to watch. McQueen teams up again with Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) to deliver breathtaking visuals throughout. The most unpleasant and brutal situations are portrayed without gore or ugliness yet they lose none of their impact. The audience reaction is intellectual and emotional, rather than visceral. It prompts the viewer to really think, rather than react with simple anger or disgust.
It’s a beautiful film, and it certainly leaves an impression on the viewer. If nothing else, it may at least stop schoolchildren from having to watch Amistad. It may even get Steve McQueen that elusive Oscar nomination. It just isn’t what I expected or hoped for from a Steve McQueen film, not after the daring and captivating back-catalogue.
- Entertainment: 4/5
- Artistic: 5/5
- Intellectual: 3/5