On not enjoying 12 Years A Slave

It’s becoming one of my annual rituals. Along comes the film that the critics are going crazy for, yet when I venture out to see it I’m left feeling irritated and deflated.  Was Gravity really a masterpiece? No, ultimately just another girl-in-danger pic with mildly interesting special effects. Slumdog Millionaire turned out to be tosh. Skyfall wasn’t even half-competent, let alone “the greatest Bond film ever”, while The King’s Speech had the most ludicrous finale since Arthur Scargill rode his motorbike down to  the House of Commons.

I was hoping Steve McQueen would surprise me. I really was. And for the first twenty minutes I had a feeling I was going to be hooked. After an hour, though, I was glancing at my watch. Yes, it didn’t help that the  couple sitting behind me were munching their way through a year’s supply of popcorn. But even when they finally fell silent I found my concentration wandering. Twelve Years is clearly made with honorable intent. It looks beautiful, and the performances are fine all round. (Some critics found Brad Pitt’s cameo jarring. I thought he made the best of his slightly clunky slavery-is-a-crime dialogue.) But the direction and the story-telling lost me in the end. Those lingering shots of the plantations, and the fact that the central character isn’t allowed to do more than register a narrow range of stoic expressions soon became oppressive. I haven’t read the book, although I’m now keen to get hold of a copy. What I missed was a sense of Solomon Northup’s inner world. He is a cultivated artist dragged down to the level of an animal. What sustains him through all those years? How does he feel about his fellow-slaves? Maybe the book is silent too. But McQueen doesn’t give us anywhere enough enough clues.

My eldest son has already seen the film twice. He loved it. Sometimes I just wonder if I’ve lost the knack of understanding the grammar of modern film. Still, I’m glad to discover I’m not the only sceptic. Trawling across the Internet, I found a handful of dissenting views. The Village Voice’s critic is harsh, but I know what she means:

“Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the movie for people who think they’re too smart for The Butler.”

 NY Magazine’s reviewer adds this:

Steve McQueen … has a specialty: He likes to fix his camera on a person in extremis—starving to death in Hunger,shaming himself sexually in Shame, and now being tortured by monstrous white slavers in the South. His shots are high-toned, mythic, frieze-dried. They’re intended to induce ­claustrophobia, physical and existential. McQueen’s images have considerable power, and I’d watch his films less guardedly if I thought he were searching for something more than his characters’ reactions to extreme degradation.

About clivedav184z

Chief theatre critic for The Times. Twitter: CliveDavisUK Facebook: www.facebook.com/clive.davis.10 Instagram: clivephotos
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