- Released Internationally on 08/11/13
- Released in Malta by KRS on 05/02/14
3-word review: Harder than fiction.
If you are looking for easy entertainment, look elsewhere. But if you want to see a powerful retelling of a story that is unbelievably true, then this piece of subtle but masterful filmmaking by Steve McQueen and his team comes highly recommended.
Solomon Northup was born a free man in the 19th century, but was working in Washington when he was drugged, kidnapped and sold as a slave. He spent a staggering twelve years in slavery, unable to communicate with the outside world or convince his owners of his freedom. It sounds impossible in this day and age, but in pre-telephone and pre-abolition America, an injustice this grave could indeed, and did indeed, happen. We know about Solomon because he published a book about his ordeal soon after being reunited with his family, and now thanks to Steve McQueen’s uncomfortable but important adaptation.
The unease and disbelief as one watches this story unfold start to sink in just as they do for the film’s main protagonist, portrayed with an impressive array of emotion by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men). His desperate attempts to stop the chain of events are met with the cruel, arrogant and infuriating behaviour of his traders, captors and owners. Only one (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) shows some redeeming glimmer of humanity, but slavery remains the order of the day and its atrocities are never questioned. Whereas Quentin Tarantino tackled this dark issue with a hint of humour and a deceptive light touch in Django Unchained, McQueen holds nothing back, with visceral gore, agonising long takes and nothing left to the imagination. The technical and acting prowess portrayed in one memorable long take are particularly breath-taking.
The treatment of Northup is mirrored by the heart-wrenching story of his fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, in an impressive breakout performance that has unsurprisingly earned her an Oscar nomination). This helps remind us that as cruel as it is to submit a free person to the hardships of slavery, it is even worse that others lived and died as slaves, with no hope of release.
There’s nothing too fancy about this film, and nothing ground-breaking. But it is an astounding story of human hardship, told in an unyielding manner. That us humans are capable of such acts is an issue that deserves our attention, lest we deceive ourselves that this is all ancient history and everything is now fine.