12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2014)

12 Years A Slave is a unique film in many ways. Most of the cast are complete unknowns. The budget was very low ($20m USD). There isn’t a massive push to advertise it anywhere, with very few trailers being seen at the cinema and on TV (I do the former quite regularly and I think I’ve seen one). Despite this, it has seemingly grown popular through word of mouth. This is something that’s very difficult to achieve when most of its momentum has come before the release date.

The pattern is similar to that of Shawshank Redemption, though at the time that film really didn’t start well at the box office. It became a sleeper hit and enjoyed success many months after the initial release, thanks to continued praise from critics and several awards nominations and wins.

Indeed, Shawshank’s Dufresne isn’t wholly unlike Northup, the main character in 12 Years. Both are imprisoned against their will for entirely the wrong reasons and are determined to see that justice is realised somehow. It is the kind of story that keeps you captivated and as time goes on you become more and more engrossed in the fact that these people should get the happy ending they deserve.

Steve McQueen is a very clever director. With his background in the visual arts (he won the Turner Prize in 1999), he adds an artistic flair to every shot he takes. Much like his debut Hunger, almost every shot could be framed and put on the wall to enjoy in its own right. The cinematography is just that good. Equally, he doesn’t shy away from allowing the camera to linger on our characters as they encounter struggles. One shot in particular sticks in your mind, when Soloman is partially hung in his first plantation and having to stand on the tips of his toes to draw the smallest of breaths. A less confident director would have cut away several times to show other subplots developing, sporadically cutting back to show he is still in pain. McQueen’s choice to stay with him is an example of how bold he is prepared to be and it is one of the most striking parts of the film.

I got confused by some of the sound editing. Several times there was an active choice to allow clashes between the score and the natural sounds of the scene, and most of the time it didn’t really work. The choice was obviously made to let the clash signify discomfort, and was occasionally exacerbated by bleeding audio into the following shots or scene, and in one particular scene, where Eliza was uncontrollably crying, it was overly confusing and distracted me from what I was supposed to be watching.

That aside, it is rightly being considered to sweep the board at this year’s Oscars. I don’t think it will, because there are too many very strong contenders with no outright frontrunner. If it gets none, there will of course be uproar. However, the same could also be said of Gravity, Dallas Buyers’ Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wallstreet. The list goes on. It is a tough year to pick a winner in each and every category. The deliberation forced on the Academy panel is a sign of what a fantastic year it has been to be a fan of cinema.

12 Years a Slave in out in UK cinemas now.

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