12 Years a Slave (2014)

★★★★★

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Director: Steve McQueen

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (US); January 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

“I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

Those purposeful words, you will have heard over the last few months in trailers, adverts and previews. They are strong-willed; in one sense uplifting, yet in another more visceral sense, haunted by humanity’s most evil endeavours. Despair and freedom, traits inversely diverging in the life, rather, the existence of Solomon Norfolk. Steve McQueen challenges us to consider and then reconsider as his depiction of the animalistic slave trade hammers with shock, but does not rely on it. For the most part, the moments of solitude and silence profoundly exhibit a monstrous reality lived by those such as the remorseless slave owner Edwin Epps. There are no punches pulled, no whippings recoiled; McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing watch without question. More than that though, it is a necessary watch. Not to reassure a cultural ridding that hasn’t fully been expunged. Rather, to condemn what should never have occurred, and to shed a flicker of true resilience on a truly despicable time.

A well-off and considerate skilled carpenter, Solomon Norfolk (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tends to the every need of his young family. It’s 1841 and the slave trade is rife with wealthy disregard. Approached by two not noticeably iffy gentlemen, Solomon — a fiddle player at heart — is offered an extended musical job, an offer greeted with appreciative acceptance. After a drunken night, he awakens in chains, stripped of his identity and mercilessly pawned. 12 Years a Slave tells Solomon’s harrowing story, as he is traded from a would-be sympathetic slave owner (that is, if such a juxtaposition exists) to the vile, despicable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has abomination clenched in his fists and the abyss peering through his eyes.

This is an intense watch, no doubt. Not necessarily because it’s another retelling of a horrible time — though that alone warrants attention and denouncing. Rather, it comes down to how Steve McQueen unflinchingly tells the story. His directorial application is admirable in that no disservice is done to those who fell victim to slavery, this isn’t in any remote sense a Hollywood-esque drama bloated full of riveting set pieces or manipulative tones. Nor is it buoyed by a somewhat ironic, semi-exploitative raft akin to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a cinematic spectacle in every sense. 12 Years a Slave is real life, a reflection of events not so long gone. You may judge success on ticket sales, or audience reception, or even personal affirmation, but there’s also a genuine feeling abound that McQueen’s priorities are and would always have been aligned alongside authentic storytelling regardless. His straightforward devotion to re-imagining the unimaginable is admirable, and it’s this wholeheartedness that enables the viewer to watch with an only just an ounce of ease, but an ounce nonetheless.

From the point of his wrongful capture, Solomon wrestles with a tragic dignity-driven dilemma: does he succumb to hate to become bastion of support for his helpless compatriots already grappled by despair, or does he stoutly, fearlessly stare directly into the heartlessness of one of humanity’s worst episodes? Initially, Solomon is disbelieving, perhaps as much of slavery’s existence as of his own forced manoeuvre into it. “They were not kidnappers, they were artists… fellow performers,” he wrongly assures, detailing those absolutely iffy gentlemen. Maybe if he can convince someone, anyone, they’ll see sense. But there is no sense, not in the racist pits of Southern USA. Everywhere Solomon glances there is a monster in human skin. The slave-trader, auctioning off people like watches (“My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”). The plantation owner, who treats his slaves fairly well — but to treat a slave well would be to treat a slave as a human, not an object, therefore not to treat a slave at all. His empathy is misguided. The hired carpenter, a white pre-Nazi figure teaming with abhorrent spew. Yet through these early trials, Solomon remains resilient and hopeful — freedom is still vaguely in sight.

Wholly, 12 Years a Slave is mighty, but a number of moments stand out in their contrasting potency. As a twenty-first century audience, we’ve sponged it all, and have resultantly become immune to most atrocities displayed in film or any other art-form. There’s something to be said, then, for an act of depicted violence that leaves you mouth gaping, eyes watering and mind searching. In a sickening whipping display not far removed from The Passion of the Christ, the film emphatically compounds its horrors. Yet it remains realistic, and that rankles the stomach. Conversely, a scene of isolation is striking. Surrounded by an audibly hissing nature, pupils dark and eclipsing, Solomon slowly stares right and left before catching the camera’s lens. Profound, absolutely. Painful, worryingly. You wonder whether Solomon has approached the point of no return, the despair, and assume thereafter that he has seen no end. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, perhaps the most poignant all both in delivery and meaning.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon is utterly remarkable. He is defiant in hope, upsetting in pain and compelling throughout, embodying this range in absolute earnest. The role is a difficult one; Ejiofor must reign in grief and disperse it invariably at the correct moments, or risk devaluing the man. At the same time, Solomon’s sympathetic nature cannot restrain, and instead Ejiofor has to symbolise at least partial hope where there is none. Ejiofor masterfully accomplishes all of this, and more — every strained note from his mouth rings with plea, and his eyes bulge with emotion. As diabolical slave-owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender demonstrably bewitches himself in a spell of pure evil. At one point Epps falls flat on his face, yet you cannot muster up the slightest node of joy because it’s obvious that his repulsive mindset enjoyed the discomfort.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is also incredible. She plays Patsey, a young female slave whom Epps fantasies over and hates himself for it. Nyong’o displays an air of vulnerability, whilst at the same time commanding the screen with her undeniably astute presence. Paul Giamatti has a minor role as the aforementioned slave-trader, excelling in cruelty, the same uncaring sensibility as Paul Dano, the aforementioned hired carpenter. Brad Pitt oddly appears as a different carpenter, Amish beard and all. His random arrival is slightly off-putting, though the co-producer of the film (ah, that’s why) is solid enough. Benedict Cumberbatch is William Ford, the empathetic plantation owner whose sentences begin with an English accent and end in a southern drawl. Having said that, Cumberbatch is an excellent choice to play the role, that much-loved real life personality giving the character some small semblance of decency.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is exquisite, offering a pristine vehicle for the film to vibrantly beam out of. A contagious scent of excellence must’ve attached itself to each component on set, and Hans Zimmer’s score is no different. Moving and soaring, Zimmer’s orchestral harmonies wrap around events on screen as if to comfort the forsaken humans. This contrasts with the weighty Roll Jordan Roll, a roar of solidarity that you don’t want Solomon to contribute to for fear of his own confirmation of plight.

If not the best film of the year, 12 Years a Slave is certainly the most important and probably the least comfortable to watch. Steve McQueen powerfully unravels a horrific period lived mercilessly by those far wickeder than any revised history suggests, and endured harrowingly by those whose suffering is unrelenting in its depiction. It’s stark and honest, so much so that you’ll exit the cinema, mind image-strewn, wishing the film never had to be made.

Philomena (2013)

★★★★

Director: Stephen Frears

Release Date: November 1st, 2013 (UK); November 27th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

It’s not often you watch a drama about the culmination of a woman’s fifty year search for her long lost son, and end up spending a significant amount of time laughing in the wake of an odd comedy duo. Settle down at the mercy of Stephen Frears’ Philomena though, and that’s exactly what’ll happen. At its heartiest the film flows with a sense of uncertain determination embodied in diverging ways by the two lead characters, but in between these moments of bottled up emotion, at its most organic, Philomena charms in tone and entertains by way of a banterous dynamic. This incredible story pitched excellently is often funny, occasionally shocking and always peculiar in believability, even if it does lose some legitimacy at its conclusion.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) stares wholesomely into the eyes of a young gentleman pictured inside a piece of jewellery. It’s her son, Anthony, taken fifty years earlier and placed in the care of an American family. Philomena spent her younger years as part of an Irish Abbey, sent there by her disapproving father in a rebuttal to pregnancy. By chance, recently fired Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is in attendance at a party where he is approached by Philomena’s daughter who pleas to have her mother’s tragic tale exposed to the world. It’s a “human interest story”, or for Martin, a way back into the positive glares of journalistic limelight, and so he embarks on a journey of discovery and hope with Philomena.

At the centre of the film is this weird dynamic shared between Philomena and Martin, one driven by religion and faith (or, in Martin’s case, the lack thereof). Having been forcibly separated from her child in an act of apparent punishment, Philomena retains a staunch belief in God and moreover, treats the present day nuns — of which still includes the prominent Sister Hildegard, who was instrumental in said previous events — with respect and without any incrimination. The horrendous actions undertaken in 1951 are presented in a unsavoury manner, as they should be, by both the film itself and just about every character, from tainted journalist to boisterous pub owner (“What about the evil nuns, what’s happening with them?”). Yet Philomena valiantly, admirably, stands by her beliefs and wholly practices the forgiving teachings, ensuring the narrative never plumbs over into anti-Catholic territory.

On the other hand, Martin embodies the typical cynical reporter. He spends half of the time answering his elderly associate’s questions about believing in God (“No”) and the other half truly puzzled by Philomena’s strong-willed demeanour. The journalist, who experiences a moral realignment himself as the film canters on, publicly denounces Philomena’s inbuilt faith having never sincerely lived it — although he was an alter boy once upon a time.

These quizzical debates between the pair provide the catalyst for the film’s good-humoured underbelly. That, in tow with the chuckle-worthy “little old Irish lady” and business-like, trying-to-reignite-him-career journalist, together in America, heralds a jesty atmosphere. The pair are outwardly mismatched, yet they share an intrinsic desire to reclaim a significant loss in their respective lives. For Philomena it’s her son, whereas for Martin it’s his dignity and journalistic aura, which is probably why he constantly contemplates writing a book about Russian history, a cultivated topic if there ever was. His initial detachment broods a condescending resonance towards Philomena, whose fickleness in the face of sarcasm offers a few comedic titbits. While Martin discusses how to approach divulging the story with his callous editor, Philomena amazes over the “the size of the portions!” in America, claiming she always worried about her son’s weight. While fully endorsing laughter, director Stephen Frears never marginalises his at times serious approach to the subject matter, without which the film would lose authenticity given the harrowing happenings occurred in real life, as part of Philomena Lee’s actual existence. A healthy balance is essential, and Frears achieves one.

Our two main protagonists are, in essence, conventional characters — a dour, disenfranchised reporter and an energetic-yet-inconstant wee Irish lady — but given the film is based on a true story, on genuine people, it is right that these characters should be conventional to a degree. That way they are recognisable and relatable, in turn evoking emotion from the audience. Judi Dench is wonderful as Philomena, humming the full dramatic spectrum in the process. She exhibits an ardent perseverance, the same kind that any mother would typify in a search for her child. However, at the same time she always carries that homely quality, a charming awkwardness in a world far bigger than and increasingly alien to her. As Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan is the perfect folly, boasting a very valid ‘been there, done that’ attitude. Unlike Dench whose character is a straight-shooter from the off, Coogan often has to reign in his thoughts (probably for fear of a skelp from his elder) as he gradually warms towards Philomena, instantaneously to the audience directing a growing fondness in the direction of Martin and his changing intentions.

Along with Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan brilliantly co-wrote the screenplay based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Long Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The duo do an exemplary job in adapting book to the screen, a traverse that facilitates this witty, emotionally-tugging film. Nevertheless, there is a problem that arises near the very climax, one captured and dragged by the notion of dramatic licence. Dramatic licence, a function utilised by the industry’s best, creates tension where there may be none, or sprinkles a share of humour if it sorely lacks. In the case of Philomena, the dramatic licence becomes problematic because it goes beyond these constructed trivialities. There is a fabricated scene approaching the conclusion that is designed specifically to be a blow-off moment for Martin, but that resultantly, sadly, envisions a significant falsity. In a way the film takes an emotional liberty, the same kind that it spends ninety minutes preaching against. A disappointing blemish, but arguably the only one.

Martin Sixsmith, worried about his health, is told to run. This same deed is adhered to by Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, who collectively grab hold of Coogan’s delightful — if a tad tainted towards the end — script and run with it, creating waves of charm and seemingly incompatible comedy in the process. First and foremost though, this is a serious and harrowing story, and Frears ensures that it is treated as such. If you journey purely alongside the happenings on screen, not investigative of the climactic authenticity, Philomena might just tinge those emotions; the laughs and the cries.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Release Date: October 25th, 2013 (US limited); November 22nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux

Adèle ambles hurriedly along a busy high street. The sun gleams on her fidgety demeanour as the apprehensive student makes her way to meet up with a guy. They don’t have much in common, if anything at all, but he appears nice enough. Do you believe it? Not really. As she crosses the road, Adèle’s anxious glance catches a calmer, more assured one. We don’t know it yet, but the recipient is Emma and the pair seem to share an instant, intriguing connection. Do you believe that? Absolutely.

Blue is the Warmest Colour has been shrouded in controversy since release, partly brought on by a selective reaction to certain scenes, and partly accentuated in a row between director and actor in regards to their working environment. Forget all that for a moment. Not because those concerns are invalid, rather it seems unfair that a film so honest and captivating should be tainted in any way. Regardless of any hostility, actors Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are utterly entrancing in director Abdellatif Kechiche’s simple story that flourishes in its beautiful depiction of love, maturity, desire and emotion.

In her late-teens, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is someone who looks and acts uninspired. She drifts through classes at school, ones she possesses a passion for but can’t get into because the teacher isn’t right. Even hanging out with friends is awkward and confused. When it doesn’t work out with a boyfriend, her love for food leads to a comfort eating embrace. It’s at a crossroads in her life, literally and metaphorically, when sparks begin to ignite. As Emma (Léa Seydoux), blue hair and all, glimpses wonderingly back towards Adèle — sun prodding the direction of her vision — the film’s engines begin to rev. With the exception of one or two charming exchanges, all that preceded becomes inconsequential. Adèle rhymes, “No words? No melody? It’s not my thing.” Well the melody has just kicked in.

One of the prevailing successes of Blue is the Warmest Colour is how unassuming it is. Indeed, we want to know more about Adèle and Emma’s relationship, but the film never becomes abrasive towards its characters and scenes are allowed to play out fully and eloquently. Of course in doing so the three-hour runtime becomes essential rather than optional. Normally I’d groan at anything north of two hours, and in all honesty the prospect of watching this felt tiresome. However: the fluid nature of the dialogue; the immersive delivery from both Adèle and Léa; the contrasting elements of each character; the way that the cinematography ensures a sense of immediacy — much in the same vein as Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy does — all combines to shun that three-hour hurdle into non-existence. You could spend a lot longer with these people and not become bored.

And it is all about the people. Adèle delves in literature, delighting in French and English and adores children as much as she detests shellfish and strawberry milkshakes. On the other hand, Emma carries a greater intellectual air about her, studying Fine Arts as a student (she’s a little older than Adèle) and mingling with similarly cultivated friends. In fact, the film in general has a European art-house underbelly going on: there’s street music with odd instruments; rallies supporting sexuality and protests over cuts; philosophical discussions entailing Picasso. Yet it still maintains a breath of commonality. You don’t mind the artsiness because it’s their artsiness, and its appeal actually starts to beckon after a short time. Having said that, the film does slightly teeter on the edge when it’s not Adèle and Emma swapping these conversations — they’re sometimes replaced by other characters who we don’t know well enough and as a result come across a tad overbearingly.

Inevitably the discussion over how necessary the extended scenes of intimacy between Adèle and Emma will arise. One sequence, which clocks in at around eight minutes, is far too long. Is it controversial? Maybe. But from a viewing perspective, its innate longevity actually removes the viewer from the genuine, heartfelt love-story which both pre and succeeds it. Thereafter said scenes are shorter, but probably still linger unnecessarily. It’s a shame because the film is so much better than some of the backlash those eleven or 12 minutes have generated, made even more annoying as the source of much of the controversy isn’t really a narrative necessity anyway.

The film is speckled with truly emotional moments throughout: from an upset Adèle being exposed to uncertainty in the midst of her classroom, a place of refuge, to a tale of two family dinners, one outgoing and the other conservative. As their existence together progresses, jealousy sets in and differences clash: this notion of fulfilment in life takes hold as Emma encourages Adèle to enter the world of writing, whereas Adèle sees happiness in continuity. There’s an inherently tragic undertone at times, and in a way the narrative mirrors that of Romeo and Juliet — in a bar, their second meeting and first magnetic interaction shares a whole host of similarities with how Romeo and Juliet first encounter each another.

Both actors are phenomenal in their depictions. Adèle Exarchopoulos, a relative newcomer to French cinema, shines in particular as Adèle. It’d be a shame for her not to pick up an Oscar nomination because there’s nobody in the past year who has delivered a more eclectic performance, beginning succinctly before unravelling a diverse range of emotions along the way. Her on-screen partner, BAFTA Rising Star nominee Léa Seydoux — who you might have seen in Inglorious Basterds or Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol recently — is also tremendous in her occasionally mysterious and always binding portrayal, as her character often acts as the anchor for Adèle’s insecurities.

Sometimes words aren’t enough, not unless they’re being exchanged between Adèle and Emma. It’s not an entirely groundbreaking narrative drama, but it is honestly and wonderfully executed. Blue most certainly is the warmest colour, however, if there’s any justice in the world, this film’s future will rain Academy gold.