Film reviews: 12 Years a Slave | The Railway Man

Steve McQueen’s film is a powerful indictment of oppression – and not just for the unflinching imagery it uses, finds Alistair Harkness

'Harrowing and sobering': 12 Years a Slave from director Steve McQueen. Picture: Contributed
'Harrowing and sobering': 12 Years a Slave from director Steve McQueen. Picture: Contributed

12 Years a Slave (15)

Directed by: Steve McQueen

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Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt

Rating: * * * * *

It would be a mistake to praise 12 Years a Slave solely for the harrowing and sobering way in which director Steve McQueen depicts the barbarous nature of slavery in America. In adapting the (recently republished) memoir of Solomon Northup, a freeborn African American who was living a cultured life in New York before being drugged, kidnapped, sold into bondage and transported to the pre-Civil War Deep South, McQueen certainly doesn’t pull his punches. The unflinching imagery he uses to depict the intolerable violence unleashed upon Solomon over the course of his titular ordeal, however, does not alone make the film the powerful indictment of oppression and injustice that it ultimately becomes.

If it did, 12 Years a Slave would be little more than a cinematic endurance test, a sort of prescriptive sermon designed for the edification of masochistic movie-goers. In reality it’s a deceptively complex piece of storytelling, one that takes a straightforward and compelling narrative and finds visual ways to translate Northup’s irony-laced prose so that we’re in the moment with him as he experiences the frontline reality of an institution he’s been opposed to, but distanced from, all his life.

That unique perspective – and star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ability to convey it in his portrayal of Solomon – is McQueen’s greatest asset, not least because it negates the need for peripheral characters to articulate objections to slavery for the benefit of modern audiences.

From the moment Solomon wakes up in shackles, he becomes an all-encompassing embodiment of the physical, emotional and mental horrors of the slave trade, so much so that when a benevolent character – played by Brad Pitt – does make an appearance late in the film, the ensuing scene is not there to remind us that, yes, some white people were righteous enough to object to slavery, it’s there to underscore the twisted nature of a society that leaves the fate of a free man to a chance encounter with decency purely because of the colour of his skin.

Indeed, because Solomon has grown up free and educated in America, his ordeal is the antithesis of most slave narratives, which lean towards stories of self-actualisation or noble suffering (both traits embraced by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the year before Northup’s memoir first appeared in 1853). As a result, his psychological journey is more intricate, forced as he is to suppress every one of his moral and legal objections to his situation so that he might survive long enough to one day reclaim the civilised life he had, perhaps naively, taken for granted.

That life, effectively sketched by McQueen in early scenes showing Solomon’s refined existence with his wife and two children, comes to an abrupt end when Solomon, a violinist by trade, is lured to Washington DC with the promise of employment. Wined and dined, he blends in with the company he’s keeping, but the bonhomie is short-lived. One night, his potential employers get him intoxicated; when he awakens the next day he finds himself chained and incarcerated in a slave pen – a hovel-like abode that McQueen, in a superlative shot transposed straight from Northup’s memoir, reveals to be a regular building lying in shadow of the Capitol (where the legislation guaranteeing the rights Solomon holds dear was formulated).

McQueen presents such sequences with an artist’s eye, but he never allows his compositions to overwhelm the story. Focus remains at all times on Solomon and his ordeal – and Ejiofor connects deeply with both, embodying the horrifying bewilderment and enraged sensibility of someone who suddenly finds himself wrenched from everything that he knows, traded like cattle between different masters, and, at one point, left dangling from a noose, his feet struggling to gain purchase as he tries desperately to prevent himself from slipping and choking to death.

That last image can be viewed as a grim encapsulation of the gravity of his predicament, in particular his precarious relationships with his “owners”. McQueen is careful to strip away the myth of the benevolent master here.

Solomon’s first owner (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) may treat him with a degree of kindness, but the blind eye he frequently turns towards appalling acts of cruelty makes him no better than the brutal men he employs to run his plantation – or the brutal sadist to whom Solomon is ultimately 

This is Epps, a psychotic drunkard, played with terrifying intensity by Michael Fassbender. His demented rage and intolerance of his “property” sees the second half of the film spiral into a frenzy of pitiless savagery that is hard to watch yet necessarily explicit.

As hard-hitting as this is, though, it’s the muted sense of outrage and injustice coursing through every fibre of Solomon’s being (conveyed by Ejiofor and captured by McQueen) that lingers longest, ensuring 12 Years a Slave triumphs as a human story about an inhuman institution.

The Railway Man (15)

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky

Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård

Rating: * * * *

Scrupulously tasteful films stuffed with Oscar-winning talent have a tendency to feel like awards bait, but The Railway Man – based on the memoir of the same name detailing the late Scottish signals officer Eric Lomax’s harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war following the Allied defeat in Singapore in 1942 – manages to escape such charges. A modest, somewhat old-fashioned film it may be, yet the way it deals with the violence and pain that haunted Lomax (played by Colin Firth) gives it a cumulative power that’s surprisingly affecting.

As the film has it, Lomax only began coming to terms with his battle-scarred psyche after meeting his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) decades later, so the film begins as a late-blooming romance. Yet it soon morphs into something else as Eric’s untreated post-traumatic stress disorder leaves him emotionally elsewhere. Flashbacks to the terrible abuse he suffered as he was put to work constructing the so-called “Death Railway” in Thailand fill in the blanks, but it’s the complex meditation on revenge that follows – a development, beautifully acted by Firth – that elevates the film, transforming it from a respectful tribute to one man’s suffering into a quietly powerful exploration of what it takes to truly forgive.

Delivery Man (15)

Directed by: Ken Scott

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders

Rating: * *

Delivery Man is the latest in a growing number of films in which the consequences of errant sperm donation are mined for comedy and/or drama. An almost shot-for-shot remake of writer/director Ken Scott’s 2011 French-Canadian film Starbuck, the film’s high-concept premise has been transformed into a vehicle for Vince Vaughn, whose responsibility-shirking man-child sch-tick proves a natural fit for a mired-in-debt fortysomething delivery driver on the verge of being shut out of his pregnant girlfriend’s life if he doesn’t shape up. This wake-up call just happens to coincide with the revelation that the frequent onanisitic deposits he made to a fertility clinic during his college days have, thanks to a mix-up, resulted in him fathering 533 children, 142 of whom have decided to sue the clinic to discover his identity. Ignoring advice, he decides to become a secret guardian angel to these fatherless souls in order to test out his paternal instincts before his new kid is born. Gooey sentimentality and group hugs follow, but Vaughn is not entirely unappealing.

Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (15)

Directed by: Arnaud des Pallières

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Mélusine Mayance, Bruno Ganz, Delphine Chuillot, Denis Lavant

Rating: * * *

For a film about a horse trader out for revenge against the baron who wronged him, Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas isn’t exactly a galloping affair. Set in the bleak, austere environs of 16th century France, and featuring a glowering Mads Mikkelsen as the film’s out-for-justice hero, the film, based on an old folk tale, is a little preoccupied with generating moody atmospherics to the detriment of the story at hand. That’s too bad, because the film is not with out merit, although it remains too much of a slow-burn to really catch fire as the gritty, medieval Euro western its set up promises.

Dirty Wars (15)

Directed by: Richard Rowley

Rating: * * * *

“The world is a battlefield and we’re at war,” declares an anonymous “operator” in this investigation into the increasingly wayward practices of the US government’s chief counter-terrorism agency, The Joint Special Operations Command (JSoc). “[They] can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do in order to achieve whatever the national security objectives of whatever administration is in power.”

The proliferation of this shadowy, Bourne Ultimatum-esque military force is the primary focus of Dirty Wars, which follows the investigative work of Jeremy Scahill, an American journalist with US political magazine The Nation as he explores why the agency has apparently been able to operate with less and less accountability. With the War on Terror becoming in Scahill’s words a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, what he discovers is a government-sanctioned organisation with the power to wage undeclared wars, run drone strikes, go on punitive killing sprees, perform targeted assassinations of exiled American citizens, mask pre-emptive killings as collateral damage, and outsource covert operations to local warlords. It’s scary stuff, and though director Richard Rowley sometimes milks the thriller overtones too forcefully, Scahill explores the subject with admirable clarity.

Floating Skyscrapers (15)

Directed by: Tomasz Wasilewski

Starring: Mateusz Banasiuk,

Katarzyna Herman, Bartosz Gelner, Iza Kuna

Rating: * * *

Coming out is still a source of trauma and tumult in contemporary Poland, according to this drama about an elite swimmer forced to confront his sexuality. Mateusz Banasiuk takes the lead as Kuba, a macho, not especially likeable athlete, who remains passionate about the sport to which he’s devoted his youth, but not about much else in his life. He has energetic, if emotionally disengaged, sex with his devoted girlfriend, but also has anonymous trysts with men in the showers at the gym. In the film’s early stages, his voracious and ambiguous sexuality seems suggestive of a new, modern sensibility in which instant gratification trumps any feelings of anguish about his sexual choices.

But when he meets and falls for Michal, complications and tensions arise as his conflicting emotions prevent him from so easily compartmentalising his life. Director Tomasz Wasilewski uses the bleak, rigid industrial spaces against which the film is set to neatly parallel how the lack of fluidity in modern Polish society makes it increasingly difficult for his protagonist to negotiate such choppy waters. Tolerance, the film’s downbeat message suggests, is not high on the social agenda.