12 Years A Slave

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One of the front-runners of this year’s Oscars is 12 Years A Slave, Steven McQueen’s latest attempt at the marriage of art and narrative film. The movie is based on the true story of Solomon Northup: an artisanal son of a freed slave, who finds himself kidnapped, taken to Georgia against his will and sold into slavery to a number of slave owners.

The fact that this story is true (and apparently not the only occasion someone was illegally sold into slavery at the time) is shocking enough, but McQueen does not shy away from showing the true brutality and undignifying existence for black slaves in the 19th Century. There are a number of scenes that are so harrowingly realistic, and acted upon a knife’s edge, that they will have you turning away out of respect for the victims of the torture. There is more genuine, effective horror in this movie than in any lowbrow torture porn flick and it is very difficult to watch.

A huge factor in how difficult the film is to watch can be attributed to a fantastically nuanced performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as the protagonist, Northup. Ejiofor changes how Northup holds himself throughout the film; he is a proud violinist with a loving family at the beginning, and by the end he’s a complete shell of his former self, hunched and invisible when white people are around. There were some great turns from Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Dano, but I am not sure Brad Pitt worked in his role. I also felt that sometimes, the main antagonist, Epps (Michael Fassbender), was played too much like a Disney villain, which may have been a decision on McQueen’s part to create a foil to the nuanced Northup. Whenever he explode in a fit of entitled white Christian rage it felt like the movie was trying to fit into generic narrative conventions of good vs bad, which cheapened the movie for me somewhat.

As with any McQueen movie it is shot beautifully; we get the lingering mid shots and close-ups of peoples’ faces for which the director is known. Whereas other another director would chose to end a scene when an audience would expect, McQueen managed to draw out the rawest emotion by having the nerve to leave the camera rolling just that little bit longer. In a movie such as 12 Years A Slave – a movie that is so deeply-seated in visceral emotion – this technique worked extremely well. If Shame was McQueen’s breakthrough movie, then 12 Years A Slave is his masterpiece, and I very much doubt his marriage of art and narrative cinema will ever be as popular.

12 Years A Slave is not a film into which you should go lightly. The subject matter lends itself to some graphic brutality and devastating realism that is not for the feint of heart, however the central performance from Ejiofor is definitely a reason this should, and needs, to be seen by everyone.

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A Dangerous Method


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If you’re a fan of David Cronenberg, like myself, you’ll probably consider him synonymous with visceral, violent and horrific imagery. In his first film, Shivers, he invented a new sexually-transmitted parasite – which looked like a cross between a penis and a turd – that freed humans of their inhibitions and turned them into sex-crazed maniacs. Shivers is gross, violent, disturbing, silly, and kicked off Cronenberg’s career as the master of body horror; horror that is concerned with issues of the physical body.

A Dangerous Method, in almost all ways, is the opposite. The film deals with the relationship between Carl Jung (Fassbender) and his patient, Sabina Speilrein (Knightly), and his long-distance working relationship with Sigmund Freud (Mortensen). If you know a rough history of any of the lives of these characters you will know their respective character arcs, but this isn’t going to ruin the movie for you.

There are many great things about A Dangerous Method. Of course, Cronenberg is comfortable with characters and dialogue, which shines through in a number of compelling back-and-forths between Jung/Speilrein and Jung/Freud. The way in which Cronenberg decided to shoot the psychoanalysis scenes is very interesting; we have a two shot of Jung and his patient that has them both in focus. To do this one guesses they shot each scene twice, once with the foreground in focus, and once with the background, and then stitched the two shots together in post, and added in the camera lens blurs to other parts of the frame, much like you would your Instagram photos (albeit with much more taste and class).

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Cronenberg plays with an audiences’ knowledge of depth of field to create a visual connotation; these scenes place Jung in focus yet he is in the foreground or background, almost in the head of his patient while they relay to him their inner thoughts. The cinematographer also makes early 20th Century Switzerland look absolutely beautiful, with rich vintage greens, yellows and reds washing over the frame. The production design works in harmony with the cinematography; the costumes and setting denote a period piece, all while we see the characters experiencing very modern-day human problems.

All that said, the film is not without its issues. Keira Knightly’s acting enthusiasm was evidently more a directorial choice than anything else, and because the movie jumps straight into the meat and bones, it’s very jarring. One minute her jaw is sticking about a foot out of her face, and then in the next scene she’s talking psychoanalytic nuances with Jung, which was strange. This was also a theme of the movie; it spans about a decade, so we see characters in different phases of their lives without so much as a second to readjust to the new time period. Also, if you’re familiar with Freud’s work you’ll know that he relates a huge proportion of repressed desires and emotions to sex. Obviously this needed to be addressed in the narrative, so we have a few graphic scenes, but I was more interested in the non-physical relationships of the characters. The sexual acts were also presented in an anti-erotic way, so even though we see Knightly’s nipple a few times, it’s not there to titalate the audience and I didn’t care for it at all.

A Dangerous Method is a good movie, but not a great movie. There is enough in there to make the story interesting, and it’s absolutely lovely to look at, but it’s not going to blow minds. Fassbender can do no wrong in my eyes, and I’d put him up there with Mikkelson, Gosling, DiCaprio and Hardy as the most exciting actors working in Hollywood at the moment, so check it out just for him! It’s only 99 minutes long!