12 Years a Slave – LFF Film Review

12 Years a Slave

Slavery is not quite a taboo subject but is certainly not one that is dealt with seriously in cinematic terms very often. At the start of 2013 we were given Tarantino’s Django Unchained which tackled slavery in a stylised fashion with bloodshed being the main method of emancipation and without me ever really getting a sense of the brutality of life as a slave. With Tarantino at the helm the film felt all too fictional to have an effect. Within just the first few minutes of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave I felt like I could finally comprehend just how slaves were seen in pre-Civil War America in the eyes of their masters. These were not human beings, they are a commodity and closer to cattle than anything deserving basic rights.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the free black man Solomon Northup who is kidnapped and sold back into slavery while his wife and children are left behind to assume him dead. More used to a life as a relatively respected gentleman and musician Solomon finds himself stripped of everything he owns down to his name and struggles to retain his dignity and sense of self. After being sold on to a relatively kindhearted plantation owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Solomon struggles to keep his head down and after rubbing up an overseer (Paul Dano) the wrong way is sold on to a brutal new master called Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his equally cruel wife (Sarah Paulson).

It is on this second plantation that Solomon suffers the most as he gradually loses all hope of ever returning to his civilised life and more importantly his family. His learned past does not do Solomon any favours as his intelligence frequently threatens to leave him out of favour with his master and therefore suffer at the thin end of a whip. The only slave sticking out more than Solomon is a young woman Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who has caught the amorous eye of Epps and with it the scorn of Epps’ wife. Patsey brings about some of the most graphic violence in the film which hits home, hard.

The plot of 12 Years a Slave is not a complicated one as we stick with Solomon throughout his years spent enslaved. The day in, day out barbarism that surrounds him is displayed without glamorisation by McQueen in a film that is beautiful to behold but positively painful to watch. Here the violence is not cartoonish and the audience is made to feel every lashing delivered by the whip and you are never sure when the next beating will come. The whole 2+ hours were a hard-hitting experience and while I would never suggest that I enjoyed the film as such it truly is a masterpiece that manages to be powerful and intimately epic.

Ejiofor may be surrounded by more recognisable names (other than those already mentioned Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti also pop up) but he more than holds his own as he takes the substantial weight of the film on his shoulders. It is Ejiofor who leads us on this journey with every grimace and wince his detailed performance brings with it. He is nothing short of magnificent which will be no surprise to anyone who has seen any of his work to date.

12 Years a Slave is a searing film that takes its weighty subject seriously whilst not scrimping on cinematic artistry. I cried for the second time this week and the audience of press applauded the film which is not a common occurrence. Expect to be hearing a lot about this film when the Oscars come around.

12 Years a Slave screens at the festival on the 18th, 19th and 20th October and is in UK cinemas on 24th January 2014.

BFI London Film Festival 2013

Martha Marcy May Marlene – LFF Review

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has just escaped an abusive cult, one where she was known as Marcy May, and has moved in with her estranged sister and brother-in-law. Back in civilised society Martha struggles to escape the memories of her time with the cult and live with people who do not share the cult’s values or lack of boundaries.

With his debut as both writer and director Sean Durkin has made an impressive film, confidently shot without any flashy gimmicks. Durkin is happy to set up a few simple shots for a scene, allowing the camera to move and re-frame where necessary, letting his script and actors showcase his talent.

Elizabeth Olsen is superb as the once confident young woman, brutalised by her time being subtly manipulated by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Too often we have to wait years for a fresh new talent to finally find the right film to showcase their skill; Olsen has found it right away. John Hawkes is wonderfully creepy as Patrick, showing that certain combination of charisma and manipulation needed to make people follow you to the dark side. Sarah Paulson too has a layered character to play as Martha’s sister Lucy, forced to choose between caring for her sister and protecting her own family from this disruptive force.

Flashbacks and present day are blended so well that there is still one scene we cannot place in one definitive time frame, Martha is struggling to make sense of her world so we must too. As Martha’s mind is sucked back to her time in the cult we can see the subtle changes in her character and physicality and just why she is finding it so hard to live with normal people once more.

With Martha Marcy May Marlene centred on a woman haunted by memories of a horrific period in her past I can’t help but draw comparisons to We Need to Talk About Kevin. When put side by side it is Martha which comes out on top, a much simpler film without any visual gimmicks. Martha is also the more traumatic, the tension is just as present as in Kevin but without ever getting a proper release.

The film left us reeling and tense, not wanting to head out into the dark night outside so it was a relief to have a Q&A with the cast and crew afterwards. They were a charming, humble bunch whose friendly energy helped to relax the audience again. Sadly most audiences will just be thrown trembling into the real world after the credits roll.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is near perfect, just a few moments where the tension almost became tedium before something would happen to jolt us back onto the edges of our seats.

Martha screens again at the London Film Festival today and on Monday, worth a look as tickets are still available, then is released in UK cinemas on 3rd February 2012.