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STAR RATINGS EXPLAINED
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

POSTER ART
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FILM DETAILS
Certificate
15
Cast
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Brad Pitt
Michael Fassbender
Paul Dano
Benedict Cumberbatch
Scoot McNairy
Paul Giamatti
Garret Dillahunt
Lupita Nyong’o
Sarah Paulson.
Directors
Steve McQueen.
Screenwriters
John Ridley.
Running Time
134 minutes

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12 Years A Slave
Shame


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Plot
1841. A gifted violinist and family man living in Saratoga, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is lured to Washington, D. C. by two entertainers promising work. Yet after a night of carousing, Northup wakes up in chains and is sold into a life of slavery.


Review
12 Years A Slave

In outline, 12 Years A Slave might sound like an attempt to wring a feel-good movie out of one of history’s most feel-bad tragedies. The true story of Solomon Northup, shanghaied from his family into slavery only to survive 12 years of unthinkable hardship, could be parlayed into an uplifting triumph-over-adversity drama, filled with grandstanding moments, sweeping strings and manipulative tear-jerking. Yet Steve McQueen’s third film, following the Michael Fassbender-centric Hunger and Shame, has little truck with peddling easy sentiments or redemptive narratives. Instead, it is an excoriating experience, at once bruising yet refined and remote, that (mostly) takes the histrionic out of history.

If detailing the darkest recesses of 19th-century America feels like a departure for McQueen (he grew up in ’70s Ealing), 12 Years A Slave still shares connective tissue with his previous work. Both Hunger and Shame were compelled by corporeality, be it the transforming effects of starvation or sex on the flesh. 12 Years... doesn’t shy from showing the effects of brutality on the body, the sheer physicality of slavery, from a whipping scene where a circling camera reveals the horrifying extent of the punishment to a hanging where Northup dangles for several minutes in long shot, while the plantation blithely goes about its business in the background. Occasionally, McQueen holds on imagery to create an almost abstract metaphorical beauty — the white water churned up by the paddle of a slave ship, the blood-like raspberry juice on Solomon’s silver bowl that may have a practical use later, the dying orange embers of a letter fading like Northup’s hope — but the images are mostly stark in their realism, unflinching in their gaze. It’s Django Unchained without the cackle and glee.

If 12 Years… lacks the formal boldness or sense of rigour of McQueen’s previous work, it is not by-the-numbers prestige filmmaking either. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley serve up a litany of horrors and humiliation — it starts with Paul Giamatti’s slave trader pulling and prodding naked slaves at a market and gets much, much worse — with only snatched moments of grace, a biblical reading here, a surprise run-in with Native Americans there, as respite. There is a hint of a Hitchcockian wrong-man-accused inherent in the premise but McQueen never plays on such frisson. Every emotion, both good and bad, is dampened, then quashed, by despair.

Following his kidnapping and selling in Washington, D. C., Northup is passed through three plantation owners: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford offers him responsibility, a violin and some kindness and therefore might be the cruellest of all Northup’s enslavers; Bryan Batt’s Judge Turner is mysterious and effeminate. Yet it is Fassbender as the middle master, malicious Edwin Epps, whose domineering turn threatens to throw the rest of the film off-kilter. Fassbender starts Epps as a drunk, sadistic, borderline cartoonish “slave breaker” yet gradually adds colours, from his strained relationship with his wife (a terrific Sarah Paulson) to his tenderness towards slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, who gives one of the most committed big-screen debuts imaginable) to his deep-seated self-loathing.

Surrounded by the likes of Fassbender, Giamatti, Paul Dano (as a sadistic plantation lackey), Garret Dillahunt (as a helping hand) and a distracting Brad Pitt (as a fervent abolitionist), Ejiofor more than holds his own. McQueen asks a lot of him — a strange extended close-up just on Ejiofor’s face; a terrific scene in which Patsey asks him the impossible — but he delivers the goods. Ejiofor’s Northup feels determined without ever articulating it, his battle to retain his individuality moving rather than mawkish — watch him struggle to resist singing along with spirituals as the slaves work. Some might argue over the validity of making a film that concentrates on the rare survivor rather than the millions that died, but such carping misses the point: you can’t mistake 12 Years A Slave for anything other than the genuine, intelligent, sobering experience it is.
 


Verdict
Falling between the twin pillars of the art house and prestige period flick, 12 Years A Slave is history lesson as horror film, powerful, visceral and affecting. And after years of being great in everything, Chiwetel Ejiofor shines in a lead worthy of his immense talent.


Reviewed by Ian Freer

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for 12 Years A Slave
Empire Star Rating

This film's sheer beauty and camerawork makes it even harder to watch its brutality and pain. Sublime acting, brilliant cinematography and all round 'powerhouse.' ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by danfacey711 at 23:15, 14 May 2014 | Report This Post


This film's sheer beauty and camerawork makes it even harder to watch its brutality and pain. Sublime acting, brilliant cinematography and all round 'powerhouse.' ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by danfacey711 at 23:14, 14 May 2014 | Report This Post


Just got back from: tp://www.imdb.com/title/tt2024544/?ref_=fn_al_ tt_1]12 Years A Slavehis is the unbelievable but true story of Solomon Northop, a free black man from upstate New York who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery. He does everything in his power to survive and somehow maybe see his family again sometime. He falls into the hands of the ruthless slaveowner Epps, who isn`t scared by anything or anyone, doing everything to get rich from the cotton industry. A rebellious slave is t... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by TheGodfather at 23:03, 27 February 2014 | Report This Post


Film of the Year!!!

So powerful, Steve McQueen made an EPIC film!!!! This calls for an Oscar!!! ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Ciaran McDaid at 19:17, 27 February 2014 | Report This Post


A moving experience

I went to see 12 Years A Slave last night and thought it was an incredible yet very moving experience. One of the best films i have seen in a long time and derserves every award it is nominated for. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by minibrew86 at 16:19, 06 February 2014 | Report This Post


Puuuurfect.

For me this is why i love movies, a director who's ability is matched by his confidence and a cast who are damn near faultless from start to finish. Although after seeing it i can't imagine the film being made without Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. His facial ticks and expressions throughout say so much of his hopelessness without him having to utter a single sentence. 1st Shame now this, Steve McQueen has just moved right into my favorite directors troupe. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by fuzzy1659 at 17:56, 30 January 2014 | Report This Post


soloman deserves to be immortalised but mcqueen is to negative

I watched the film last nite and totally understand showing us the negative of slavery ,but the ending could have shown us more positivity because all in all this has a good end not only did soloman get home to his family but he went out tryin to free other slaves this is a very brave and positve part of this mans life considering what he had been through the director could have shown that , I have seen django unchained three time s i would not watch this film again but god bless soloman glad h... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by mcgee at 18:31, 28 January 2014 | Report This Post


soloman deserves to be immortalised but mcqueen is to negative

I watched the film last nite and totally understand showing us the negative of slavery ,but the ending could have shown us more positivity because all in all this has a good end not only did soloman get home to his family but he went out tryin to free other slaves this is a very brave and positve part of this mans life considering what he had been through the director could have shown that , I have seen django unchained three time s i would not watch this film again but god bless soloman glad h... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by mcgee at 18:26, 28 January 2014 | Report This Post


An honest, detached look at slavery

- 4.5/5i]12 Years a Slaveilm that benefits hugely from its subject matter. Its numerous flaws, including another particularly disappointing score from Hans Zimmer and a deus ex machina appearance made by Brad Pitt in the film’s final moments, are more than made up for by McQueen’s brutally blunt but appropriate approach to the plot. Not once does the film patronise the audience, abuse our preconceptions, nor does it fall into the easy trap of “reverse racism”. The story of a free man kidna... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by janans at 12:32, 24 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: Brilliant filmmaking

I had huge expectations and was hoping to see something different from the other slavery based films. I mean it's a very good film with amazing acting and so. But nothing new/special for me. ... More

Posted by m_er at 09:59, 19 January 2014 | Report This Post


You knew the beats

How many people would agree that you knew the movie's beats and major plot points BEFORE the movie even began? The subject matter is a well-trodden path and one that any aspiring screenwriter could easily mimic. On the plus side, Brad Pitt looked funny with his little beard and jaunty hat. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by lelandmeeks at 11:18, 18 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: Move along, please. Nothing to see here.

L: Pop Leibel One star because it's yet another slavery film where its worthiness slaps you in the face with every frame. As it fucking should do. L: ruddick we are sorry! again! for what happened with slavery but come on!! please stop hurting and pointlessly disturbing us and making us feel guilty over again. just have fun and have laugh like Django Unchained that was an amazing film. I know 12 y a s is a true story and sounds like a good one but now its spoiled ins... More

Posted by UTB at 13:49, 17 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: OK, OK, WE ARE SORRY!! how many times do we have to apologize

L: ruddick we are sorry! again! for what happened with slavery but come on!! please stop hurting and pointlessly disturbing us and making us feel guilty over again. just have fun and have laugh like Django Unchained that was an amazing film. I know 12 y a s is a true story and sounds like a good one but now its spoiled instead of making it into a awesome epic with good acting its just a cheap nasty film. sorry but rubbish x brad pitt haha comes into the film as himself to save a slave hah... More

Posted by NCC1701A at 12:05, 17 January 2014 | Report This Post


Move along, please. Nothing to see here.

One star because it's yet another slavery film where its worthiness slaps you in the face with every frame. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Pop Leibel at 22:49, 16 January 2014 | Report This Post


OK, OK, WE ARE SORRY!! how many times do we have to apologize

we are sorry! again! for what happened with slavery but come on!! please stop hurting and pointlessly disturbing us and making us feel guilty over again. just have fun and have laugh like Django Unchained that was an amazing film. I know 12 y a s is a true story and sounds like a good one but now its spoiled instead of making it into a awesome epic with good acting its just a cheap nasty film. sorry but rubbish x brad pitt haha comes into the film as himself to save a slave haha xx ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by ruddick at 14:17, 15 January 2014 | Report This Post


12 Years A Slave; Awkward silence anyone?

After the last scene passed; I sat wide-eyed looking at the screen taking in all the predictable outcomes of the true story. Informing me that regardless of the struggles of one man's story as a African man living in America during the 18th century, that no real justice prevailed... I think it's worth-while knowing about the different individual stories of people like Solomon, but there are millions of stories like his untold, lost and forever buried. It just so happens that this one mad... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by hellomissharper at 11:38, 15 January 2014 | Report This Post


Brilliant filmmaking

I went into this film with my expectations dimmed thinking "this is going to be 2 hours of brutal violence, and I don't want to see that". Completely wrong. Thank goodness, it's not THAT violent. It is completely horrible, though. The ONE whipping scene is (obviously) horrible, but it's only graphic for a moment. The horrors of slavery are far more intelligently explored than just having white people beating black people. I can't believe that I actually thought that would be the case.... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by tysmuse at 23:57, 14 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: 12 Years A Slave

I suppose it’s little wonder that so few films tackle the subject of black slavery, and after this one I’m not sure there needs to be another. Director Steve McQueen’s previous two films Hunger and Shame left this writer cold, despite their obvious intelligence, but with 12 Years A Slave he wowed me. It’s an extremely powerful and harrowing drama which refuses to sugar coat or sentimentalise its subject for the odd unnecessary addition true story as told by the real Solomon Northup in his boo... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Dr Lenera at 09:20, 14 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: 12 Years A Slave

the film is decent, it's a powerful story, but from a technical and film making standpoint it does absolutely nothing special. It's incredibly generic in it's approach. There's a couple of really effective shots (tree hanging), but for the most part it's a by the numbers film that happens to be about a very touchy subject. It's the type of film that's presented to the general masses as some kind of monumental feat of film making, which it really is not. That said, it kept me watching from sta... More

Posted by Coyleone at 22:52, 13 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: 12 Years A Slave

With the nominations of the 2014 BAFTAs recently, there are at least two films that will go head-to-head with one another and will be strong contenders for the upcoming Oscars. Competing against Alfonso Cuarón’s ground-breaking Gravity – with the most BAFTA nominations of eleven – is Steve McQueen’s third feature 12 Years a Slave (nominated for ten) which continues the recent line-up of films that historically explore the themes of racism and slavery. Living as a free negro with his wife a... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by R W at 19:26, 11 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: 12 Years A Slave

L: demoncleaner L: Emyr Thy King L: demoncleaner Anyone who has seen a snippet of an interview with the director can see McQueen carries himself with a hilarious ed truculencee] Like this: tp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbHVhXlbYWA]YouTubelick) (prepare to squirm more than Ronaldo on the floor) a ha yes'm 10 minutes into that clip and god love the wee earnest lady of the TIFF. McQueen seems baffled by the appliance of fake sincerity in aftermath of his film.me gu... More

Posted by horribleives at 14:18, 11 January 2014 | Report This Post


unflinching, uncompromising and brilliant

A copy a paste job from my blog detailing my review... Once an acclaimed video artist, now a bona fide mainstream movie presence; Steve McQueen is no stranger to the confinement of the human condition. His first feature eral, his second offering /i]metaphorical. Now with his third s a Slavemalgamation of imprisoning the body and soul is complete; a difficult, often devastating reflection on one man’s endurance through America’s slave trade. A subject US cinema has occasionally glanced at, ... More

Posted by Qwerty Norris at 14:02, 11 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: Seen it all before...

... More

Posted by demoncleaner at 20:54, 10 January 2014 | Report This Post


Seen it all before...

You seen Roots? You seen this...You seen Amistad? You seen this...You seen etc etc etc ....seen all this before and its a total snore the umpteenth time over. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Azzurro06 at 20:16, 10 January 2014 | Report This Post


RE: 12 Years A Slave

L: Emyr Thy King L: demoncleaner Anyone who has seen a snippet of an interview with the director can see McQueen carries himself with a hilarious ed truculencee] Like this: tp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbHVhXlbYWA]YouTubelick) (prepare to squirm more than Ronaldo on the floor) a ha yes'm 10 minutes into that clip and god love the wee earnest lady of the TIFF. McQueen seems baffled by the appliance of fake sincerity in aftermath of his film.me guys it might also be ok... More

Posted by demoncleaner at 20:11, 10 January 2014 | Report This Post


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