Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brian Blatt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt
In 1853 Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years a Slave which told the story of how, as a free man living with his wife and children in upstate New York, he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery, spending the next twelve years of his life working on the cotton plantations of America’s South before finally being reunited with his family. The book was hugely influential in the years leading up to the American Civil War, exposing the inner workings of slavery and opening the public’s eyes to what it really was to be owned by another person. Now, 160 years later, British director Steve McQueen has brought Northup’s story to the screen in a film with the potential to be equally influential.
Despite being one of the defining periods of American history, antebellum slavery has not been widely explored cinematically, particularly from the point of view of the slave. The significance of 12 Years a Slave comes not only from the fact that it is a vivid portrayal of American slavery from the point of view of the slave, but also that it is the product of a the collaboration between a black British director and an African American screenwriter.
With his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and does not pull his punches. It should therefore be no surprise that his exploration of 19th century slavery is brutal and unrelenting. McQueen uses a number of long takes, holding the image and forcing us to take it all in. A lot of screen time is given to faces, allowing us to watch emotions unfold and develop within characters.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a powerful performance as a man thrust into an intolerable situation. Part of the appeal of 12 Years a Slave as opposed to other slave narratives for McQueen was that the narrative was the inverse of what we usually get, with our protagonist going from freedom to slavery. Having Northup start the film as a free man made him an effective surrogate for the audience. Slavery is as foreign and horrific to him as it is to us. It does, however, make for a less all-encompassing tale as in the confines of this narrative the injustice is that a free man has been kidnapped into slavery, not simply that any human being might find themself in slavery.
Northup’s story has the quality of an odyssey. This story of hope, of overcoming and refusal to surrender to injustice, is the story of Solomon Northup’s journey home to his family. It is a journey which takes place over a long period of time with constantly changing circumstances as he is sold from one owner to another, some seemingly benevolent, others ruthless.
McQueen regular Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, the plantation owner under whom Northup spent the majority of his time. Fassbender is a brave actor unafraid to take on difficult characters, but the violent, hate-filled and insecure Epps might just be his most repulsive character yet.
The significance of this project, along with McQueen’s steadily growing reputation, has helped in assembling a tremendous supporting cast including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who was also one of the film’s producers.
A harsh but incredibly powerful film, 12 Years a Slave is one of the finest films of the year and could already be the most important film made on this important subject.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Mario Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
The compelling, morally complex mystery film Prisoners tells a story of child abduction in suburban Pennsylvania. Two families, the Kellers and the Birchs, come together for Thanksgiving lunch and are enjoying a lovely day until they realise that both of their youngest daughters are missing. When their search proves fruitless, the abrasive Detective Loki, a specialist in finding missing persons, is put on the case. However, the kidnapped girls are not the only prisoners the film’s title alludes to. While Detective Loki continues his investigation, Dover Keller takes things into his own hands. In his desperation he abducts an intellectually challenged man who he believes was involved in his daughter’s abduction and knows her whereabouts, and sets about trying to persuade him to speak by any means necessary. It is at this point that Prisoners ventures beyond the realms of a standard abduction mystery movie and becomes a statement on America in the post-9/11, war-on-terror era.
As America continued its search for Osama bin Laden in the latter part of last decade, details started to leak about the extreme persuasion tactics being employed at Abu Ghraib (tactics confronted on screen last year in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty) and American society was struck with a moral question. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it will save lives? In Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski confront that same question but put it on a smaller scale, personalising it. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it can save your daughter’s life?
It is this central moral question that makes Prisoners so painful and so compelling. Simultaneously we want Keller to stop because he might be wrong, but we want him to keep going because he might be right. What is the worse scenario in his mind: that he be wrong and as a result has tortured an innocent man, or that he be right and miss possibly the only opportunity to save his daughter’s life? As such Keller is at the same time the protagonist of the film and one of its chief antagonists. As we struggle to settle on our moral response to the actions being depicted, we are presented with another possible response by Nancy Birch, the mother of the other missing girl, who upon discovering what Keller is doing tells her husband, “We’re not going to help Keller, but we won’t stop him either. Let him do what he needs to.” Her reaction appears to be Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s indictment of an American administration and society that would turn a blind eye to things it could not stomach so long as the ends justified the means.
The first Hollywood film from French-Canadian director Villeneuve, Prisoners is a well-structured and executed mystery with strong performances from its principal cast, a number of whom are playing against their usual character types. For a savvy audience that is programmed to expect plot twists, Prisoners still manages to surprise you. There are some moments at which you feel like plot and character elements are missing –for example Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is quite an interesting character in terms of his mannerisms and presentation and you expect a backstory that is never forthcoming to explain why he is the way he is – but the film is none the less a gripping, intense mystery.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean