|'McQueen seems to get something from his actors other directors haven't or can't. Fassbender's swaggering sweaty, near-mad plantation owner, Epps, is a vision in Southern hatred and primitive excess.'|
You can forgive Chiwetel Ejiofor for being nervous approaching 12 Years A Slave. Many observers will focus on the bravery required for an emotionally raw performance, in a film concerned with slavery, a subject which still, so popular opinion goes, American cinema in particular has a hard time facing up to. Not only that though but consider the fact that Ejiofor is here inserting himself in-between two of the best collaborators in contemporary cinema; director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender who, so far with Hunger and, in particular, Shame are two-for-two. Not only that: they're two-for-two in some style.
The fact then that 12 Years A Slave is a resounding, if not absolute, success, and that Ejiofor delivers one of the performances of the year, is something significant. Though Fassbender features prominently (and brilliantly), this is Ejiofor's film and in the role of Solomon Northup he is astoundingly good. Convincing in both Northup's Northern home and when in captivity; bereft of hope, dignity and friends, Ejiofor exudes sympathy without having to plead for it. We are along for Northup's journey, we feel the injustice, the malignant disgusting thread of constant racially driven threat and so much more, and we feel it all through Ejiofor.
Rightly, the actor will get the plaudits, but there are signs here that McQueen might be more of a master craftsman at performance than he has been given credit for. Yes, the director can do visuals, that much is obvious, and the performers on their own are no doubt skilled, but with three actors in particular here (Ejiofor, Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch) McQueen seems to get something other directors haven't or can't. Fassbender's swaggering sweaty, near-mad plantation owner, Epps, is a vision in Southern hatred and primitive excess. There's an idea that, to Epps, his slaves are similar to a live soap opera, played out by his directorial hand and through battles with his wife, whilst he manipulates the human pieces to horrible dramas and repugnant acts. A late scene with Brad Pitt is revelatory. Fassbender is someone else; some white devil barfed up by the rum-swilling, sun-stroked bowels of hell. Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt.
Meanwhile, Cumberbatch - an actor who has not until now managed to progress through a film without bellowing something from the broad depths of his tonsils, mistaking volume for presence - is also transformed. In McQueen's hands he becomes a meek, perhaps even kind, plantation owner, addressing the wrong social norms with as much grace as he can muster. Still though, at his core and through Cumberbatch's performance, the character is a Southern White racist, lacking the willpower, or the need, to change anything. If you want to see many of these characters as broad archetypal approaches to slavery at various historical points then feel free; I don't think the potential to do so is there accidentally.
This though makes the arrival of one Mr Pitt all the more frustrating. Practically galloping in on white steed, from the liberality so far North it's called Canada, lance in hand to slay the dragon, Pitt doesn't fit. He's archetypal in the wrong way; he stands out by deed, by intention and by the fact that he's Brad Pitt. The arrival of the character is, apparently, faithful to the text, but there were better ways to introduce him than this and more suitable, subtle actors to cast.
If that is a minor irritation, present only come the finale, then the major one is not something which is here, but something which is not. Steve McQueen makes beautiful films and 12 Years A Slave is a beautiful film, but more than that, Hunger and, again, particularly Shame were beautiful standouts because they were different and innovative; they pushed cinema in a new direction and seeing it happen felt revelatory. Perhaps it's unfair to expect to see that again here but nevertheless, something is missing. Noticeably, McQueen has reigned in his long takes, save for one shocking scene. I wanted more; Solomon's raft ride, the final departure from Epps', picking cotton - I could have taken all of these at more than twice their length and, for a film covering 12 years, I could have taken more than the one hundred and thirty four minute total runtime. Perhaps that is, in a way, praise for just how good McQueen is but, nevertheless, it means his film feels just a small amount short of greatness.
12 Years A Slave is released in UK cinemas on Friday 10th January 2014.