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Tom Shone

At the Cinema

Art-house directors are shock artists now – and one of them has made the best film ever about slavery

Tom Shone | January/February 2014

The Oscar for Best Picture is widely expected to go to "12 Years a Slave". Adapted from Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir about being snatched from his family in the north and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film is constructed almost like a horror movie, each circle of hell bigger than the last. Walloped and poked by a slave-trader, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is viciously abused by an overseer, only to arrive—out of the frying pan, into hellfire—at the plantation of a "nigger-breaker" (Michael Fassbender) and his wife, whose chief pleasure in life is to see her husband's prized slave mistress suffer. To adapt Martin Amis's line about shotgun blasts in the films of Sam Peckinpah: after "12 Years a Slave", a whipping ceases to look like something you bounce back from.

This is the third film from Steve McQueen, whose work is all about the control of a body. In "Hunger" that body belonged to the hunger-striker Bobby Sands, played by Fassbender, whose emaciated form became a theatre of war. The film was brutal, austere—as furiously controlled as its subject. In "Shame", the body was that of a sex addict, also played by Fassbender, propelled around lower Manhattan by appetites uncurbed—the opposite of Sands's predicament. Critics snickered, but there was no doubting McQueen's singleness of focus: in his films the body is a battlefield, scarred and cratered by a fierce, existential fight for autonomy.

It was only a matter of time before he embarked on a film about slavery. That he has made the best film ever made on the subject isn't saying that much. Slavery is one of those black-hole subjects, like the Holocaust, that involved so much suffering that the result is either humanitarian kitsch or exploitation: "The Color Purple" or "Django Unchained". McQueen resolutely refuses to slot into either tradition, combining the cruel spectacle of the latter with the moral anger of the former. Does he want to put the audience through it? No question. In the most memorable scene, Solomon is left hanging from a tree by a noose, barely able to breathe, his toes slipping in the mud beneath him. McQueen holds the shot for several excruciating minutes while Solomon fights to stay upright. Behind him, other slaves go about their chores, and children play beneath the sun-dappled willows.

McQueen hails from the same school that gave us the high-toned sadism of Michael Haneke's "Funny Games", Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream", or, further back, Bergman's "Cries and Whispers". A little-noticed evolution of the past 20 years, as blockbusters have retooled themselves with ever more sophisticated technologies of sensory immersion—CGI, 3-D and the like—is a corresponding demand for visceral impact in the arthouse. All our greatest cinematic artists, it seems, are now shock artists—Goyas to a man. Bressonian transcendence no longer cuts it. You measure a director's seriousness by the punishment they dole out to the human body. Who is Michael Haneke but Bresson with a more colourful palette of bruises? Tarantino is Scorsese with a wider arterial spray; Aronofsky is Polanski, plus viscera.

The trick, at least in McQueen's case, has been to assault people's outsides while summoning a corresponding interest in their insides; and here he has been helped by a series of extraordinary collaborations with his actors. With his square jaw, furrowed brow and watchful manner, Ejiofor manages something very difficult: to suggest the fear of a man who must hide his intelligence at all costs or be beaten for it, and yet also register the enraged consciousness of a free man. In one extraordinary scene, Lupita Nyong'o, the newcomer playing the slave mistress, begs for a mercy killing with the sweet urgency of someone asking for a kiss.

As her oppressor, Fassbender has already drawn the lion's share of praise, and yet as much as he commits physically to the part—he barks and bellows, staggers, stumbles and roars his way across the screen—I found myself missing the more filigree work that Ralph Fiennes put into Amon Goeth in "Schindler's List", alternating hatred of the Jews and lust for his maid, the tension creating diabolical little folds of denial, which Fiennes, locating further vanity in the man, smoothed away as if straightening a cowlick. Nothing so minor ruffles the surface of Fassbender's character, a man constructed entirely from monstrous appetites: for power, lust, whiskey. The movie, over-enthralled by his psychopathology, is diminished slightly in his shadow.

It didn't take psychopaths to implement slavery, though it certainly did produce them, like mutant marrows—the script, by John Ridley, follows these degradations to the millimetre. Far more penetrating is the scene much earlier in the film, in which Paul Giamatti's slave trader takes a customer on a tour of his sales room. It's a normal enough drawing room—nicely lit, with beautiful bay windows—but for the row of semi-naked humans standing by the fireplace. As Giamatti tours the room, poking and prodding their chests, showing off their teeth like horses, his joviality is almost intolerable, the insult far more lasting for not being intended at all—there are no feelings to hurt, because, for him, there are no people in the room. You want slavery in a single scene—how it existed as a system, ordinary as daylight—there it is.

12 Years a Slave British release January 14th

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