Oscars Countdown 2014 - 12 Years A Slave

Ensign Lestat's Oscars Countdown, 24/02/2014

'12 Years A Slave'
Nominations - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o)Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Editing

I feel like a heavy burden has been lifted from my shoulders. No, it wasn't a tight deadline I was fretting over, it was the viewing of the film '12 Years A Slave'. I never saw the trailer (couldn't find it), but knew about its making for a long while. Many big names were attached to star and it was Steve McQueen's latest work. But the name itself belied its core, and the many articles and blogs that I came across regarding the finished product had me, mentally anyway, in an utter frenzy.

It was a surefire inclusion among the Oscar nominees and its inclusion in the main categories was hardly a surprise. People talked about the importance, the relevance, but what they didn't do was give an inkling into what exactly happened in the film. It's based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man's capture into slavery in the late 19th Century. He went through hell, that's all I could gauge, but what hell was it exactly, no one would say.

I had psyched myself up to such a point that making excuses for not watching the film became pretty much a daily endeavour. Never have I faced such an utterly bizarre situation - all this regarding watching a depiction of a real man's suffering.

In the end, it was the meeting of a deadline that made me sit down and watch it. Or pretend to watch it - the first forty-five minutes were more of an audio-book for me, rather than a film, as I kept my head down throughout. I was terrified of what I'd see. 

Days before I'd even sat down to watch the film, my Mum and I almost decided against watching it at all. She told me that there was so much suffering that we knew of and read of (she reads a lot and is well-versed in the many sufferings of the slaves), and I was concerned that the visuals would stay with me forever, as would the evil depictions by my favourite actors.

To be honest, nothing but nothing can prepare you for what you eventually will see in the film. It is, at the same time, better, as bad and worse than everything you expected it to be. Some scenes will haunt you, others will wash over, but all in all, it's a film that will stay with you. Not even a bunch of boyband music videos can drown it out (that was my therapy after watching the film).

I have always been very fond of Chiwetel Ejiofor, even though I've seen very little of his work - this is down to the fact that my sister and I, several years ago, ended up watch the documentary on him. So, I know more about him than I do of his work, which is never a good thing. He's up for an award this year, and I am very pleased that he's finally getting the recognition that he greatly deserves. Will he get it?

Before I answer that, I have to say that most of the performances were much quieter than I had originally expected. No extravagance here. The most memorable parts were those that focused on the expressions of the actors. McQueen is a particularly gruelling director, because he specialises in long, unbroken takes. There weren't many in this one, or none that really struck me barring the one long shot of Chiwetel (or a stunt double, I don't know) hanging by a rope. It was endlessly long and I don't know how they achieved it.

I won't go into the incidents of the film, as I said, I can explain it in detail and it will still not prepare you for the real thing. The production design is immaculate - noticeably dark and dingy slave quarters and luxurious plantation owners' houses. The costumes are period-specific as well.

The fact is, the film is an uncomfortable and difficult experience, It is meant to be as such because discrimination, based on colour, gender, orientation, size and ability continues today. And Steve McQueen's work is all about being in-your-face and discomfiting, so this one fits the bill.

But, and I know that I am the least qualified person to say this, but the film doesn't come across as McQueen's most accomplished. No, don't shoot me. I don't mean it as a criticism, not completely. But, I will explain why I say this.

I felt like the film lost track when it introduced Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), who is a brilliantly capable slave on the Epps farm. The owner, Edwin (Michael Fassbender) is infatuated with her and continues to take advantage of her. Consequently, enraged by his feelings, his wife, Mistress Edwin (Sarah Poulson), keeps ill-treating the girl. As soon as Patsy enters, she seems to become the central character, whose sufferings we see through the eyes of Solomon. He takes a backseat. McQueen too puts her sufferings front and center - Epps raping her has nothing to do with Solomon, he doesn't witness it, but she asks his help in the aftermath (though not in the immediate aftermath). Even the dreadfully long and painful scene where Epps, in a jealous rage, takes the whip to her, puts her suffering in focus - Solomon is shown as having to put up with the nonsense, because that was the only way to go. Fact is, Solomon, up until the end, was always underachieving in the cotton fields, and dealt with the punishment after - but we don't see that punishment. It's shown once in the background. Why such an explicit scene when it comes to Patsy's punishment?

Also, the jarring change in POV was peculiar, since till then we had only got Solomon's view and a look into incidents that directly affected him. 

I guess because that scene came so late in the film, it stuck with me. But what it did was just remind me that 'women have it worse'. We already know that, and it could have been shown differently. As I said, Solomon took a back seat in this segment, and his was the story that we were following. Not to say that Patsy's story wasn't important, of course it was, and I'm glad it was shown, but in the end we get closure with Solomon, but have no knowledge of what happens to Patsy. 

What I loved about McQueen's previous film 'Shame' (though even that wasn't completely flawless) was that it just felt so real, it felt relatable and the characters' actions were realistic. It was haunting.

This film is not entertainment, you have to work up the courage to watch it. It's important, it's relevant, but it feels far removed at the same time. Or rather, I'd rather just remove myself from it. The acting all round is brilliant - as I said, oddly quiet and sensitive. I hate to think that Fassbender will always be remembered for playing such a sick sadist, but to be honest, his utterly effortless portrayal of the same makes him hard to ignore. He appears to... rejoice in his acts, which is worrying to say the least. 

Lupita as the long-suffering Patsy is shockingly good - coming into her own in the one scene when she's happy (I know, odd). I hope she gets lots of fun and normal roles now, because I'd like to never think about what Patsy went through ever again (I'm chicken, I know).

The many cameos are great - Paul Giamatti is earnest, Brad Pitt managed to not hog the screen, but ably played the only good white character in the whole film, Scoot McNairy was such a nice guy (and then...). Paul Dano was as always his most annoying best - he's obviously really good, because I really did want to shoot him with a double-barrel and swore at him all throughout his time on-screen. Most of all I enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch's cameo. I'm not a besotted fan, but, as my sister pointed out, most likely this film was an attempt to make amends for his ancestors. He plays a benevolent plantation owner, who is kindly. He looked stunning, an odd thing to notice in a film like this, but it was a thought that kept me sane for the 2+ hours of the film's run time.

Yes, this film and its cast and crew should walk off with the awards, because it could not have been easy to shoot it. It's not the kind of film you can watch twice, you can hardly make it through one viewing. It's shocking and scary, but well put together. I'll confess that it was hard for me to actually appreciate the film, considering I had being going grey over whether to watch it or not for several weeks. I was glad it was over - and that's not the way one should be watching a film. 

But that doesn't detract from the importance of the work. Considering what people have gone through in the past, people should realise just how banal our fights and wars against each other in the modern age are. We are all human - one race and one species. Time to wake up to that fact. 


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