Saturday 20 December 2014

12 Years A Slave (2014) - Movie Review

While the film season in the U.S. sees January/February as the dumping ground for the previous year’s leftovers, it’s the complete opposite case in Australia. The beginning of the year marks Oscar season, the time when all the big awards contenders that haven’t already been released are brought to the masses en masse. Since my recent cinematic compulsion began a few months after that season, I unfortunately missed more than a few of them. As my inevitable year-end lists would be conspicuously incomplete without mention of such films, I plan on using my new-found extra time to look back and see as many of these as possible before the New Year. As such, what better way to start than with one of the biggest critical darlings of that season? This is 12 Years A Slave.

The plot: Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man in the 1800’s, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Over the next 12 years, he endures what can only loosely be called life as a slave worker in one of the bleakest periods of human history.

The cast here is nigh-on impeccable: Chiwetel does an amazing job as Solomon, portraying all of the raw despair and at times betrayal that his character suffers with laser-precision; Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch play two oddly contrasting slave owners with the sort of finesse that should be expected from either actor and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey is nothing short of heartbreaking throughout, making for the most emotional part of an already intense production. Cumberbatch and Fassbender represent a major point in this film’s favour: How balanced its depiction of white people is. This may sound odd for me to highlight, but it is a stereotypical depiction of slave owners for them to be one-dimensional monsters with no sense of remorse or humanity. Here, through these two as well as numerous other actors, we are shown more fleshed out and human portrayals of these people. True, we’re still dealing with characters who see human life as property, but seeing such characters as more than just simple demons for the audience to use as their One Minute Hate is a refreshing touch to the overall story.

The direction, likewise, is outstanding: Steve McQueen, a man who must have parents who are the biggest film nerds ever by his name alone, shows a great eye for cinema with the way this film is shot, particular the use of long shots in a few key scenes. The long shot of Solomon as he waits for his master to free him from a noose is a seriously harrowing image to see, even considering how bleak the film is as a whole.

Now for the part of the review that is guaranteed to piss some people off: While this film is undeniably well-made and well-acted, and I understand that the setting is one that should by all means be shown as dark and depressing, this film is too depressing. It is seriously draining in how bleak it is, a factor that unfortunately saps away at a lot of the film’s strengths. The best, and really the only, way to illustrate this is by comparison: Earlier this year, we had These Final Hours, a film about one man’s actions during the last hours before Earth is destroyed. The film, naturally, is very bleak and disheartening but it at least had the foresight to include small beats to break up the depressing tone so as not to overload the audience; every so often, there’d be a character moment of kindness and/or hope that would raise the mood slightly, something that made the overall production easier to swallow.

Then again, I’d be perfectly fine with this kind of mood in film if there was some greater purpose to it, but whatever purpose lies at the heart of this film feels disjointed at best. Why do I say this? Well, here is where we delve into one of the only sticks in the mud when it comes to the cast: Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass. Now, Pitt is by no means a bad actor, but his casting is why he is getting mentioned here. *SPOILERS* It is as a result of Samuel and his interaction with Solomon that Solomon is eventually freed from his servitude, and the first scene we see with Samuel is of him lecturing Fassbender’s Edwin Epps about how black and white people are no different from each other and no-one should be forced into this kind of lifestyle.

To say that this feels out of place would be an understatement and the fact that Pitt himself is a producer on the film only makes this feel worse. Samuel has all of two scenes in the film during the third act: He talks to Epps about how wrong he is for owning slaves, and then talking with Solomon about getting his free papers. Removed from however the events went in reality (This story is adapted from a memoir of the real-life Solomon Northup), I can’t help but see this as a moment of ego stroking for Pitt, detracting heavily from the already dismal proceedings. I get the importance of this kind of story; my own government’s treatment of asylum seekers is enough to make me realise that this is a book that needed to be adapted for the wider public. However, as a whole, this doesn’t feel like the right way to convey said story and the message at its heart.

All in all, this film is a depressing experience and not in a good way. A good depressing film is one that makes you feel down but also feels like it deserves such emotions and is rewarding as an experience; a bad depressing film is one that just makes you feel down and doesn’t offer much in way of justification for such. Maybe it’s also a slight case of over-hype, but for whatever the reason, this did not resonate with me as it has with so many others. It has a great cast and a great director behind it, and I get that such a setting needs an appropriately bleak tone, but "Too much of a good thing" definitely applies here. It is by no means a bad movie; but its unrelentingly bleak tone is far more than I am able to take.

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