Cinema Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave


Dir: Steve McQueen  Wri: John Ridley, Solomon Northup  Pro: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad   DOP: Sean Bobbitt  ED: Joe Walker DES: Adam Stockhausen • MUS: Hans Zimmer • CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender

12 Years a Slave is an exceptionally well made telling of a tale based on a true story about a free man kidnapped and enslaved in 1841 in the USA.

Solomon Northup, a free negro carpenter and violinist, leaves his wife and children for Washington, DC, joining two men who promise him a dollar a day and three dollars for performing with them (they’re circus entertainers). After enjoying some wine with the two men, Solomon finds himself waking up in chains. Slave traders coerce him into taking on the identity of a “runaway nigger from Georgia”, beating him with a bat and then a belt. The film chronicles what “Platt” (his new name) must suffer in the life now forced upon him.

Platt works at the plantation of William Ford (Benedict Cumberpatch), a sincere Christian.  His staff includes the ruthless and jealous carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who attempts to lynch Platt. Ford transfers Platt into the ownership of the demanding and cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). At Epps’ plantation, Platt witnesses some of the degradation endured by the female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who pleads for help to end her life so she can escape her plight.

In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg presented the politicking that characterized President Lincoln’s efforts to ensure that Congress abolished slavery. In Django Unchained, a very different kind of film, Quentin Tarantino gave us another of his revenge fantasies. 12 Years a Slave, set well before the Civil War years, deals directly with slavery, focusing on the story of an individual to show the horrors of a violent, exploitative and brutal labour system.

John Ridley skilfully adapted Solomon Northup’s book, giving the film a literary quality without it feeling overwritten. It explores complex themes. The slave owners justify their exploitation by appealing to Christian scripture, while the slaves themselves appeal to God for hope and salvation. It demonstrates how Christian beliefs then supported a system so obviously abhorrent and unjust to modern viewers, while also providing some relief for the slaves.

On the economic aspect, Paul Giamatti, playing slave trader Theophilus Freeman, sums up feelings about the harsh treatment of the slave, while tearing apart a family: “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin.”

Solomon enrages John Tibeats, the carpenter on Ford’s estate, with his suggestions for improving efficiency on the plantation.  This and another scene, in which Epps holds Patsey close as he struggles with his obvious desire for the female slave, recall Schindler’s List, in which the Nazis shot a female Jewish architect who advised resetting a building’s foundations and in which Amon Goeth desires and then kisses his servant Helen. Epps terrorizes Patsey, growing jealous and suspicious of her behaviour. He gives his slaves a ‘whupping’ when their daily cotton pickings fall below 200 pounds and, when drunk, he rouses them at night to have them dance about his house, making his overworked “property” even more tired and inefficient. Michael Fassbender infuses Epps with an intensity that, with his character’s drunkenness, makes him an unpredictable volcano of violence. Whether the film’s personalization of slavery’s brutality detracts from the suffering of millions remains an open question.

Beatings, hidings, and whippings are not merely threatened; they take place frequently and horrifically, and McQueen doesn’t shirk from showing the battered bodies and scarred faces, nor does he sensationalize such scenes. Indeed, his direction is far more conventional and restrained than we’ve seen so far, although he again works with Sean Bobbitt’s expert framing and Joe Walker’s tight editing. Two scenes particularly reflect this filmmaking team’s brilliance.

In the first, a beating reduces Solomon to a shadow of his former self after he awakes to find himself chained in a darkened room. Lighting and framing leave Solomon in shade as his temporary master sets out his new identity as a runaway nigger. The camera captures Solomon’s silhouette on the wall as his face remains obscured in the darkness.

In the second, Solomon remains hanging from a noose as a result of Tibeats’ attempted lynching. Female slaves emerge from their quarters and ignore him. McQueen highlights the slaves’ fear and terror as they avoid acknowledging Solomon’s predicament until, at last, a woman approaches him to give him some water. It’s an unnerving sequence, in which McQueen first shows Solomon’s feet scraping on the ground to stop the noose from doing its work, and this becomes a focus for the wider shots that follow, tempting viewers to focus on his feet when the characters onscreen also refrain from looking at Solomon.

Music is an important element in the film, with Solomon talented as a violinist. Slave songs are prominent. Music unites them in their hardship as they toil in the cotton fields, while they must also provide the music for the formal dancing of the “plantation class”. Hans Zimmer’s original score features his typical long strings and deep brass notes. It jars in some scenes, for example when Solomon is on the boat taking him down south before the music becomes integrated into the sound of the boat’s paddle wheel.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberpatch acquit themselves well in small roles, while Dano and Fassbender have more explosive parts.  Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-born Kenyan actress, makes a stunning debut as Patsey.

But the film’s towering achievement is Chitwetel Ejiofor’s commanding performance as Solomon, probably his best to date. It’s a demanding role, aging over twelve years, his character undergoing arduous ordeals. McQueen’s decision to focus on Ejiofor’s expressive face to carry the weight of the film in its closing stages is a testament to his ability and conviction as he registers the horrors of the most brutal period in American history.

12 Years a Slave earned wide acclaim since premiering at the Telluride Film Festival last August, becoming the leading contender in this year’s Oscar race. Inspired by real events in America’s dark history, its story centres on continuing defiance and hope against terrible adversity. It’s solemn but a seriously good film.

John Moran

15A (See IFCO for details)

134  mins

12 Years a Slave is released on 10th January 2014

12 Years a Slave official website



Cinema Review: Shame – Film of the Week

can do no wrong

DIR: Steve McQueen • WRI: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan • PRO: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Joe Walker • DES: Judy Becker • Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale

Plagued by an insatiable desire for sexual gratification, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is finding life a constant struggle. Burdened with the weight of this crippling addiction, he tries to maintain a functioning working and social life, while finding any means necessary to satisfy his urges. It is only when Brandon’s emotionally dependent and vulnerable younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him in his New York apartment that the boundaries of his two existences begin to blur, causing him to lose a handle on his addiction. The fragile seams of his life start to split as he watches Sissy pick at her emotional wounds, forcing him to reluctantly reflect on his own tumultuous and tortured existence.

Steve McQueen’s unrelenting drama is as shocking as it is heartbreaking, laying bare the tragic reality of addiction and the destructive power it possesses. Grim scenes of New York City, coupled with a poignant soundtrack are a constant sensory reminder of Brandon’s plight. McQueen removes the taboo of sex addiction by depicting it like any other type of addiction, warts and all. All the pleasure and intimacy of sex is stripped down until it is nothing more than a stark, physical act. For Brandon, sex is a commodity, a means to an end, a relentless force that defines his actions and decisions and drags him unceremoniously through life.

Fassbender is outstanding, effortlessly making this depraved character both sympathetic and inherently likeable. Mulligan also proves she is an extremely talented and engaging actress, displaying an edge we have not seen in previous roles. We long to know what has driven these siblings to this point, as Sissy cryptically states, ‘We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.’

The plot of Shame is relatively basic; this is more a fleeting glimpse into the lives of others, than a complex narrative. The moments between Brandon and Sissy are remarkably fluid, their interaction and dialogue realistic and fuelled with a furious chemistry that can be unnerving to watch. Indeed, Shame is littered with scenes that take us well beyond our comfort zone, but herein lies strength of the movie ­– we are trapped with Brandon, unable to look away; we are both as compelled and as horrified as he is by what is happening.

This is an intelligent and deeply disturbing insight into addiction and all of its indignities. Shame may not be for the faint hearted but it is a remarkable and fascinating portrayal that is bound to provoke some healthy debates in the world of cinema.

Emma O’Donoghue

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
Shame is released on 13th January 2012

Shame – Official Website


Smattering of Green amongst Guardian's 50 Oscar® Tips

(Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire)

With only five months left until Christmas it can only mean about six and a half months until those winning names are read out at the Kodak Theatre at the 2012 Academy Awards.

This week The Guardian have picked out 50 films that may be up for consideration next year and there are a few with an Irish interest, let’s a take a look at our best chances at hearing ‘Tá an athas orm’ being bellowed from the stage next February.

#25 Shame

Everyone’s favourite German Kerryman Michael Fassbender reunites with Hunger director Steve McQueen in a film about a man unable to control his sex life.

‘Brandon (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds, Hunger, A Dangerous Method) is a 30-something man living in New York who is unable to manage his sex life. After his wayward younger sister moves into his apartment, Brandon’s world spirals out of control.

From director Steve McQueen (Hunger), Shame is a compelling and timely examination of the nature of need, how we live our lives and the experiences that shape us.’

To read more click here

#34 Jane Eyre

Michael Fassbender stars as Mr Rochester opposite Mia Wasikowska in this adaptation directed by Cary Fukunaga.

‘Based on Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, the romantic drama stars Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”) and Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”) in the lead roles. In the story, Jane Eyre flees Thornfield House, where she works as a governess for wealthy Edward Rochester. The isolated and imposing residence – and Mr. Rochester’s coldness – have sorely tested the young woman’s resilience, forged years earlier when she was orphaned. As Jane reflects upon her past and recovers her natural curiosity, she will return to Mr. Rochester – and the terrible secret that he is hiding…’

To read more click here

#35 Haywire

Starring Michael Fassbender and also partly shot in Ireland this thriller is directed by Steven Soderbergh.

‘Mallory Kane is a highly trained operative who works for a government security contractor in the dirtiest, most dangerous corners of the world. After successfully freeing a Chinese journalist held hostage, she is double crossed and left for dead by someone close to her in her own agency. Suddenly the target of skilled assassins who know her every move, Mallory must find the truth in order to stay alive.

Using her black-ops military training, she devises an ingenious—and dangerous—trap. But when things go haywire, Mallory realizes she’ll be killed in the blink of an eye unless she finds a way to turn the tables on her ruthless adversary.’

To read more click here

Keep a (very) close eye on the trailer for familiar buildings.

#48 This Must Be The Place

Can Element Films, currently riding high at the Irish box office with The Guard, don the tuxedos and gowns next year?

‘Cheyenne is a former rock star.

At 50 he still dresses “Goth” and lives in Dublin off his royalties.

The death of his father, with whom he wasn’t on speaking terms, brings him back to New York.

He discovers his father had an obsession: to seek revenge for a humiliation he had suffered.

Cheyenne decides to pick up where his father left off, and starts a journey, at his own pace, across America.’

To read more click here

Plenty of quality there, and a busy Michael Fassbender appearing in three films, check out the other 46 rivals here


'Hunger' Wins in Poland

Hunger, the debut film from British artist Steve McQueen, has scooped two of the top prizes at the 9th Era New Horizons International Film Festival in Wroclow, Poland.

The film picked up the Grand Prix and the Film Critics Award, winning $43,175 (€30,000) and guaranteed distribution in Poland.

The biopic of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands has had a successful run of screenings at international film festivals, picking up a slew of awards. These include the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2008, where the film premiered, the DIESEL Discovery Award at Toronto 2008, and the Carl Foreman Award for special achievement by a newcomer at the BAFTAs 2009.


Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards

The Dublin Film Critics Circle (DFCC) has named Steve McQueen’s study of Bobby Sands’ last days, Hunger, as the best Irish film of 2008, narrowly beating Lance Daly’s Dublin-based Kisses to the top spot. The other Irish film gaining recognition was Liam Nolan’s and Ross Whitaker’s study of St. Saviour’s Olympic Boxing Academy in north Dublin, Saviours.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was a comfortable winner in the main category.

The best acting awards were won by Kristin Scott Thomas, for her role in the French drama I’ve Loved You So Long, and Daniel Day-Lewis was honoured for his performance in There Will Be Blood.

McQueen, originally a gallery-based visual artist, won the award for best breakthrough and playwright Martin McDonagh was runner-up for In Bruges. Other films attracting attention included The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, No Country for Old Men and Nadine Labaki’s first feature-film Caramel.

The DFCC, which polls professional critics in the capital, limits its selection to those films released in Ireland during the calendar year. The DFCC was set up three years ago to represent established print and broadcast reviewers.

For a full listing of all the winners, click here.