Movie reviews: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave *****

Movie reviews: 12 Years a Slave

Opening in New York in 1841, 12 Years a Slave (15A) is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical account of how he was abducted and sold into slavery in the Deep South. A musician, engineer and doting family man, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers that his achievements count for naught when he is reduced — in the eyes of his owners, at least — to the status of a subhuman possession. Indeed, an education becomes a dangerous thing to have when a man of Northup’s erudition and intelligence finds himself subservient to the sadistic slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Steve McQueen’s film tells a story that we believe ourselves to be familiar with, but it’s the capacity of the storytelling to get under the respective skins of the protagonists and unearth their humanity that has created an entirely deserved Oscar buzz. The physical abuse and humiliation Solomon receives after being abducted in Washington DC (after McQueen, tellingly, offers us some long-range shots of the White House) is distressingly intimate, and Ejiofor is superb in evoking Solomon’s sense of despair and loss. Fassbender, who previously worked with McQueen on Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), turns in his finest performance to date, rendering Epps a character who is as charismatic as he is hateful. Perversely, given the ugly manifestations of racism that thrived in the South, the movie is beautifully shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and the story is given an added dimension in its exploration of the subtle but complex hierarchy that existed on slave plantations. The supporting cast — Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and especially the debutant Lupita Nyong’o — all contribute handsomely, although the true star is the indomitable human spirit that drives Solomon to survive his hellish experience.

More often than not crass and brash, Vince Vaughn is in rather more reflective form in Delivery Man (15A). He plays David Wozniak, a hapless incompetent who muddles through life as the butt of his friends’ and family’s jokes. Life suddenly gets very serious for David when his girlfriend, Emma (Cobie Smulders), announces she is pregnant and will be having the baby without his help. But David has other concerns: courtesy of a three-year stint as a sperm donor two decades previously, David is the father of over 500 children, a goodly portion of whom have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to discover his identity. Can David step up and take responsibility for his actions? An affable, well-meaning fool, David is given a likeable reading by Vaughn, who turns in a performance that is tender, thoughtful and at times even poignant as he blunders around New York playing guardian angel to his vast number of biological children (in a large supporting cast, Jack Reynor and Simon Delaney offer stand-out turns). The blend of comedy and melodrama isn’t always seamless, but Ken Scott’s movie has its heart in the right place.

Collider (15A) opens in 2018, where six people find themselves in a dilapidated old house on the site of the Large Hadron Collider complex at Cern in Switzerland, with no idea of how they got there. The sextet appear to have time-travelled to the future, a post- apocalyptic ‘end of times’ in which the world’s population has been almost entirely wiped out by a pandemic. Unable to trust one another, and battling mutant hordes that thrive on darkness, the group attempts to kick-start Cern’s particle accelerator in order to get their lives, and possibly the world, back on track. Irish director Jason Butler hits the ground running with Collider, a dystopian sci-fi thriller chock-a-block with incident and twists that thrives on the tension generated by the characters’ mutual mistrust. Suitably claustrophobic, the story is undermined by over-the-top characterisations as the actors try to accommodate some very crudely sketched personalities. The relentless pace is initially breathtaking, but with so little time devoted to any one character it grows increasingly difficult to care about any of them. That said, it’s an impressively ambitious feature length debut, and it will be very interesting to see what Butler can achieve if he’s given a half-decent budget for his next outing.

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