Review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

First-class acting ensemble dominates in this harrowing but slack slavery drama.

Long before 12 YEARS A SLAVE reaches to our local cinemas (scheduled for release on 26 December 2013), this acclaimed slavery drama has been (almost) universally praised by critics and even garnered a number of accolades from various film festivals when it first landed in the US. Not only that, it has also been positioned as one of the frontrunners for 2014 Oscar. And now, here lies the biggest question: does 12 YEARS A SLAVE really worth such a high praise? Upon finally watching it, I admit the movie was good but hardly the kind of cinematic masterpiece I was hoping for in the first place.

Based on the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free and well-educated black man who lives with his beloved wife and two children in New York. One day he is enticed by a pair of professional illusionists Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) to travel with them to Washington, DC for a lucrative circus gig. But things goes wrong after he's been drugged by the two illusionists and finds himself awakens being chained to a floor. He is subsequently sold into slavery by a slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti), and later finds himself being laboured away by the kind-hearted plantation owner Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup's life as a slave turns uglier when Mr. Ford sells him to Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), a drunken sadist who owns a cotton plantation.
As in previous two features, HUNGER (2008) and SHAME (2011), director Steve McQueen applies the same unflinching approach in 12 YEARS A SLAVE with some worthwhile moments here and there that makes you cringe.

However, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is best remembered for its top-notch acting showcase. Chiwetel Ejiofor achieves his career-best as Solomon Northup, who is particularly memorable the way he uses his expressive eyes to convey his varied emotions. This is the kind of performance that I seriously hoped he will lands an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. As the spiteful Mr. Epps, Michael Fassbender is similarly impressive while newcomer Lupita Nyong'o almost steals the show with her heartbreaking performance as the sympathetic slave, Patsey. The rest of the supporting actors, ranging from Benedict Cumberbatch to Brad Pitt, have equally prove their worthy talents here.

The long uninterrupted take where Northup is seen struggling to stay alive with a noose dangling around his neck, and a painful scene where Patsey ends up being lashed after trying to reason with Mr. Epps over a bar of soap.
Despite the agonising subject matter, McQueen's direction is somehow too restrained to fulfill the impact for the horror of slavery. Sometimes the movie feels overly melodramatic and other times the pace slackens a lot, particularly in the climactic finale which could have been trimmed shorter. John Ridley's adapted screenplay, though captivating, is unnecessarily overlong that doesn't justify its 134-minute running time.

While 12 YEARS A SLAVE misses the opportunity for becoming the great movie it aims to be, it remains a worthwhile effort that deserved to be seen at least once.

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