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'12 Years A Slave' review: The film breathes with reality

Jan 31, 2014 10:30 PM IST India India
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Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedit Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt

Director: Steve McQueen

There are enough scenes of brutal violence in 12 Years a Slave to make your skin crawl. But few are as disturbing and as genuinely shocking as one in which a black slave is left hanging from a tree, grunting from suffocation, his toes barely touching the ground. Behind him, children play and other slaves go about their chores, fearing for their lives if they even look his way. The camera lingers on this wide shot for several minutes as if to emphasize the sheer helplessness of these people.

Directed by British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave takes an unflinching look at a shameful chapter in American history. This is slavery examined with searing honesty, far removed from the Hollywood sugarcoating of Gone With The Wind, or the revenge-fantasy approach of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, on whose autobiography the film is based. An educated free black man in 1841, living with his family in Saratoga, New York, Northup is kidnapped, sold, and sent to work at a Southern plantation, where he barely survives a dozen years of inhuman torture and bondage. Solomon's first owner is a relatively compassionate man (Benedict Cumberbatch), but then he's sold to the sadistic cotton-plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), from whose savagery no one is spared, not least the female cotton-picker he's obsessed with (Lupita Nyong'o).

Never an easy watch, the film's unforgiving brutality inevitably inspires a deep sense of shame. McQueen refuses to cut away as men and women are lashed till the skin is peeled off their backs. Every piercing wail, every cry as a mother is separated from her children, prompts you ask aloud: How could anyone be so heartless?

The film is particularly effective because of its remarkable cast, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose eyes alone convey volumes of pain and repressed anger. Michael Fassbender, terrific as his relentlessly cruel owner, evokes memories of another spiteful villain, the Nazi concentration camp commander Amon Goeth as played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.

Nicely shot and paced, the film works because it breathes with reality. McQueen drives every scene to the core of its emotions, and their cumulative emotional effect is devastating. I'm going with four out of five for 12 Years a Slave. It'll leave you shocked, ashamed, angry and overwhelmed.

Rating: 4 / 5

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