Directed by Steve McQueen
This, they say, is destined to get every meaningful Academy Award this year. Terribly likely. 12 Years A Slave has so much going for it: subject matter (you don’t want to mention it first, but you do mention it first), breathtaking cast, Steve McQueen’s charismatic directing. In a year when the best films aren’t even nominated (Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis were left out in the snow, inexplicably), 12 Years A Slave has every reason to do it in style.
And it’s okay, 12 Years A Slave is a better film than Argo. Steve McQueen is a great director, with style and chops to make this minefield of a topic (just imagine how pathetic and one-dimensional it could be) look intelligent and artistically compelling. A little artsy, too, but that doesn’t hurt. Hunger and Shame were very good, but you feel it’s here that McQueen makes his breakthrough and comes unto his own. It’s his big Money moment, after a couple of brilliant left-field gems like Other People and The Rachel Papers. This time around it’s not just Michael Fassbender. This time it’s Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s Brad Pitt.
And it’s, yes, American slavery of mid-19th century. Not Tarantino’s comic-book look, not Spielberg’s sideway glance; this is dead serious, full-on stare. The film is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, and follows his 12 years of hard labour and humiliation. Different owners, beatings, despair. It’s a relatively uneventful story (in cinematic terms, of course), which is both a blessing and a trap. On the one hand, it gives McQueen a great opportunity to explore the life around Solomon in every cruel and brutal detail; on the other hand, it makes McQueen resort to rushed, episodic scenes that are supposed to bring spice to the passive, occasionally boring narrative. He mostly succeeds, and the film looks gripping more or less all the way through.
As for the acting, it’s consistently good. Chiwetel Ejifor (as Solomon) masterfully carries his humble dignity around him from beginning to end. Cumberbatch is reasonable as a kind-hearted plantation owner. Fassbender is the film’s most complicated character, all crooked and confused, the sort of Nazi officer in love with a Jewish girl; you can’t look away. Pitt I’m not so sure about; he is mostly hidden behind a Southern accent and a beard, but I guess he does what he was asked to do.
Still, for all its talent and guts, 12 Years A Slave doesn’t really overwhelm emotionally. Maybe it’s the rushed ending, maybe it gets a little too technical in places. Thus, my resolution would be an Oscar for Steve McQueen, and a hilarious best picture award for American Hustle. No, this film wouldn’t be a bad choice, obviously not, but God knows La Grande Bellezza kicks this one out of the window. Last year’s main-category nomination for Michael Haneke’s Amour was a pleasant surprise, but this time the Academy just blew it again.