Friday, January 17, 2014

MUST WATCH FRIDAY: 12 Years a Slave

Modern Tempted/Harlequin KISS author Heidi Rice made a complete tit of herself at her local multiplex this weekend... But she hopes she won't be the only one. And Steve McQueen's harrowing new drama is the reason why. 

Originally I had intended to do my Must Watch Friday post this month on American Hustle, a fabulously entertaining rom-com-dram (if there is such a thing) that I thoroughly enjoyed from Silver Linings Playbook supremo David O Russell and starring Bradley Cooper with a curly perm, Christian Bale with an epic comb-over and Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence in the battle of the boobilicious babes. Need I say more?

But then we had a rare family film outing on Sunday afternoon and went to see 12 Years A Slave. And I knew I would have to do this movie, because I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. This film has left an indelible impression on me - by the end of it, I was in floods of tears - literally blubbing in the cinema, my two sons were in shock and my husband who, unlike me, doesn't cry in movies at the drop of a hat, was welling up too. Why?

Well, as you probably already know, this movie is based on an extremely harrowing true story.

Solomon Northup was an African-American (played here with quiet brilliance by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who lived as a free man in Saratoga New York in 1841 but was kidnapped, shipped down to the South and sold into slavery. For 12 years he remained in this inhuman, unspeakable system, marked by the colour of his skin as less than a human being, as a piece of property, allowed to be brutalised, abused and exploited at will.

Michael Fassbender gives a performance of manic, terrifying intensity as the most insane of Solomon's 'owners' (a man who appears to hate himself almost as much as he hates the people who the law dictates must be subject to his every diabolic whim) but is Benedict Cumberbatch's supposedly benevolent owner really any better? Who barters human beings for the sake of business and whose wife believes that a distraught mother who has been 'sold away' from her children will forget about them after a 'warm drink and a meal'.

It's not giving anything away to tell you that Solomon survives (just) and is eventually 'saved' when a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt in a nicely underplayed role) agrees to write a letter on his behalf and inform his friends in the North where he is. And he returns home a free man again - to write the memoir on which the film is based. But which, let's face it, very few of us have ever heard of until now.

So, it's fairly obvious why a wuss like me would make a spectacle of herself in the cinema while watching this film. Because the subject matter is extremely distressing. But actually, director Steve McQueen takes great pains not to manipulate your emotions in this movie. He tells Solomon's story straight and unadorned, with an almost chillingly clinical attention to detail and nuance — allowing you to see the horror unfold through Solomon's eyes without prejudice.

Perhaps because of McQueen's restrain, I held it together remarkably well during the course of Solomon's capture and enslavement and even his eventual release. In fact, it wasn't until the film's final scene that I broke. And here's why. Because ultimately, Solomon's story is not an uplifting one (even though he is 'saved') - but the full horror of what he has endured doesn't really sink in until he
arrives home. It wasn't until that moment that I realised how tense I had become. Seriously, I felt as if I'd been holding my breath for two hours - and the release of emotion was palpable.

As the final credits roll, you feel that Chiwetel's Solomon will be forever traumatised by his experiences. How could he ever be fully whole again after having his liberty, his dignity, his very humanity denied in this way? And let's not forget the people left behind who have been born into slavery and will die there - newcomer 's vulnerable, victimised Patsey is particularly heartbreaking. But ultimately, McQueen's masterstroke with this movie is not to show us the horrors of slavery but to show how normal they had become. By doing that he shows us the devastating impact of slavery not just on the abused but the abusers too, while also making us aware that it isn't the cruelty, the beatings, the abuse that will destroy Solomon's spirit but that they are all so accepted, so inescapable, so hideously routine.

So I'm sure you're thinking, well why the heck would I want to go see this movie? It sounds like a bit of a downer? Well there are all the obvious reasons, because it's brilliantly made, performed with complete conviction, moving but never in a manipulative way, but most of all for me, because it does what any great movie should always do, it puts you in someone else's shoes and let's you walk around in them. And in the process shines a light on a part of history that has been left in the dark (or deliberately misrepresented by Hollywood) for far too long.

I really hope this film wins the Best Film Oscar and the BAFTA this year. And I don't want it to win just because it's the best film of the year (even though it's the best one I've seen). After all, the Academy Awards don't really stand for excellence in film entertainment - if a turgid melodrama like Titanic can scoop 11 of the things I think we can be sure of that (seriously? how long did it take them to hit that freaking iceberg!). No, I want it to win because it's such an important film and I want as many people to see it as possible. Major kudos to Steve McQueen, and his producers, his cast, his writers, etc for bringing Solomon's story to our attention - but my goodness, why the hell did it take so long?

If you've enjoyed this review go check out Heidi's new Harlequin Pop ebook: Movie Bliss: A Hopeless Romantic Seeks Movies to Love. At 99c/99p it's a steal! And/or come have a chat about movies (or even Heidi's books) on Heidi's blog, her website or Twitter (@HeidiRomRice)

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