Strength of spirit shines

In June, Icon Home Entertainment releases Oscar Best Picture Winner 12 Years a Slave on DVD, Blu-ray and digital formats. Jess Layt offers her take on the film.

Based on the incredible true story of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at slavery and the strength of the human spirit to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

Directed with beauty and authenticity by acclaimed British filmmaker Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), 12 Years a Slave leaves an indelible impact on its viewers. 

In Seratoga, New York, 1841, free African American man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Love Actually) is a highly respected and successful fiddle player. With a wife and two children, he lives comfortably until the unthinkable happens. 

Duped by men he believed friends, Solomon is abducted and sold into slavery. In the blink of an eye, everything he knew was lost.

Solomon is sold to a slave retailer (Paul Giamatti, The Illusionist) who displays him and fellow slaves like cattle in a store. He is renamed Platt, and warned to hide his education – slaves are bought to work, anything else will earn them lashes.

The only way for Solomon to survive, he is told, is to put his head down and be a simple slave. But that is not what he has in mind, “I don’t want to survive,” he says, “I want to live.”

Solomon is purchased by his first ‘master’, Mr Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, Atonement), a kind yet meek plantation owner.

Despite the unimaginable turn his life has taken, Solomon vows not to fall into despair, but to be the best worker he can, to make himself indispensible until he has the opportunity to share who he truly is.

At Ford’s plantation the story really kicks into gear, and the indescribable horrors of being a slave begin to take shape.

McQueen juxtaposes the breathtaking beauty of the Southern landscapes and scenery of Ford’s, and later Epps’ plantations, with the unthinkable violations of human decency undertaken in the very same location.

Ford’s slave ‘manager’, Tibbeats – played by the immensely talented Paul Dano (Prisoners), who is building quite the resume of memorable (and often unlikeable) characters – is awful to Solomon, and after one particularly ugly incident, leaves him hanging from a tree, just barely touching the ground.

The hanging scene is incredibly hard to watch, confronting and painful – McQueen provides no comfort for viewers in times like these, as indeed there was no comfort for Solomon.

Following this event, Solomon is sold on to the South’s nastiest slave owner – Edwin Epps, played by McQueen favourite and deserving Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds). It is here he meets Patsey (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o in her first film).

Solomon and Patsey strike up a friendship of sorts, which make the events of his time at the Epps plantation, including a particularly soul-destroying incident that causes Solomon so much self-hatred he shatters his one possession – his fiddle, all the more unbearable.

Though she does not appear until the 53rd minute, the emotion that Lupita Nyong’o injects into Patsey, the subtle signs of strength and defiance that litter her performance are unforgettable, and it is easy to understand why she was so well awarded.

At one stage during his time at the Epps plantation, Solomon looks straight through the camera to the audience, wordlessly imploring viewers to never again allow such unspeakable injustices to occur. His eyes beg to ensure his story is told, and told again, to learn from the horrors he has endured and rectify the social inadequacies that caused them to occur.

Brad Pitt (Se7en), whose production company Plan B is a large reason 12 Years a Slave made it to the screen, enters the film with scarcely 20 minutes remaining, in the form of Canadian drifter Bass. His role is small, but significant, as he provides an ally for Solomon in his last months as a slave.

By the time the ending of the film rolls around, viewers have been on such an emotional journey with Solomon Northup that the climax forces a poignant swelling of the chest and moistens even the driest of eyes.

All the ingredients of 12 Years a Slave are of the highest standard. The storytelling is tactful and moving, seamlessly intercutting moments of Solomon’s life as a slave and his free life beforehand. The music by brilliant composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight trilogy) is unique and stirring, with tense percussion and sensitive strings. The cinematography is truly stunning, showcasing the natural beauty of the Georgian landscape – the cotton fields, the winding rivers, the dense sugar cane. And, above all, the performances given by the entire cast are remarkable. Sarah Paulson (Mud), playing Epps’ cruel wife, is just as detestable as Fassbender and a performance as haunting as the primary cast.

Equally impressive are the accents of Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender, who deliver spot-on Southern twangs despite being, respectively, English, Kenyan and Irish. 

The 12 Years a Slave DVD also features a brilliant special feature detailing behind-the-scenes, as well as featuring Ejiofor reading excerpts from Solomon Northups biographical book on which the film is based, also titled 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave is available to rent or buy on DVD, Blu-ray and digitally from June 4.

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