A pair of pre-awards season 2013 film releases, in the shapes of Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and Lee Daniels’ The Butler (inspired by the life of former White House butler Eugene Allen), have drawn from real-life stories in order to examine the black American experience during the 20th century, but Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (arriving this fall) goes back further in time to some 20 years before the U.S. Civil War began. 12 Years a Slave has started to amass rave reviews following its premiere at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, with select critics indicating that McQueen’s film is all but an Oscar nominee shoo-in.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity) stars in McQueen’s film as the real-life historical figure Solomon Northup, a free black man and professional violinist who lived with his family in New York until the year 1841, when he was abducted and forced to work as a slave in the South for more than a decade thereafter (title spoiler: 12 years, to be exact). 12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s third full-length feature as director and his third collaboration with actor Michael Fassbender, who previously headlined McQueen’s Irish hunger strike drama Hunger and sex addiction flick Shame.
The above 12 Years a Slave featurette walks you through the basics of Solomon’s harrowing journey, from the nightmare of having to wake up in chains one morning – a day after he was dining and drinking fine wine at a high-end restaurant – to him navigating the dangerous world of slave labor in the mid-1800s U.S. Ejiofor’s performance and McQueen’s direction seem to be the real highlights of the film, judging by the footage included here, in addition to the powerful material featured in the official trailer. Then again, if you’re seen either of McQueen’s previous movies, then you already know that tour de force acting and refined filmmaking are his trademarks as a director.
Early word of mouth from the critics who saw 12 Years a Slave at Telluride is that the film also illustrates how far McQueen has come as a director, after releasing three motion pictures over the past five years. Aesthetically, the director is known for being a formalist, but 12 Years is described as being more expressive than his past films, in terms of shot choices, editing, and so forth. As the logic goes, that quality makes the slave drama not only thrive as an arthouse experience, but may let it appeal more to the film buffs who found the relentlessly heavy and dreary style of Shame to be off-putting and pretentious:
The first thing fans of McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame” will notice here is the degree to which the helmer’s austere formal technique has evolved — to the extent that one would almost swear he’d snuck off and made three or four films in the interim. Composition, sound design and story all cut together beautifully, and yet, there’s no question that “12 Years a Slave” remains an art film, especially as the provocative director forces audiences to confront concepts and scenes that could conceivably transform their worldview.
Based on Northup’s 1853 bestseller, “12 Years a Slave” owes much to Ejiofor’s knockout performance. But it’s a particularly noteworthy advancement in McQueen’s already impressive filmography, as it funnels the cerebral formalism of his earlier features (the prison strike drama “Hunger” and the sex addict portrait “Shame”) into a deeply involving survival narrative. As a result, “Slave” injects its topic with remarkable immediacy.
12 Years a Slave boasts quote the impressive acting pedigree, with the list of supporting players including Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story: Asylum), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Paul Dano (Looper), Michael K. Williams (Boardwalk Empire) and Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly), among others. However, so far it’s Ejiofor’s central performance that is garnering the most acclaim, with Fassbender and relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o not too far behind:
All of that impeccable composure and noble intent would be for naught were Ejiofor not the one grounding each indignity as Solomon… Ejiofor’s tightly clenched conviction perfectly embodies hope and righteousness against all odds. He gives the best performance of his career to date, and what’s more, he gives “Slave” its bruised, beating heart with every scene.
Meanwhile, the limited criticism leveled towards 12 Years a Slave at this juncture seems to involve the screenplay from John Ridley, as based upon Northup’s original memoir. That doesn’t comes as a huge surprise, given that Ridley’s script work in the past has tended to vary noticeably in quality, ranging from his screen story for David O. Russell’s acclaimed Iraq War film Three Kings to last year’s George Lucas-produced Tuskegee Airmen drama Red Tails (which took a heavy beating from many critics):
Although Ridley sometimes writes his villains’ lines a little more broadly and obviously than needed, the overall mixture of period flavor with contemporary accessibility in the verbiage couldn’t be any better balanced. As for McQueen’s work, advance chatter had some wondering whether he had what it took to make a mainstream entertainment his third time around, but there won’t be much questioning of that after doubters see “12 Years a Slave.”
As you can see, though, the complaints about 12 Years a Slave raised in the first wave of reviews published online are relatively minor (so far). We’ll have to wait and see if the film can maintain that momentum as more critics see it (followed by the general public), but for now it appears safe to assume that McQueen’s feature will be a contender in the awards season on the horizon.
12 Years a Slave begins a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on October 18th, 2013.
Source: Yahoo! Movies