Steve McQueen has revealed himself to be one of the most exciting directors working in new cinema at the moment. His 2008 breakthrough film, Hunger – the tale of Bobby Sands, the Northern Irish hunger striker – was a brooding exploration of self harm in the face of personal belief.
Shame then followed, an intimate descent into sexual addiction. Fassbender again starred, portraying its afflicted protagonist, a man struggling to cope with the coldness of modern life complete with flashes of unapologetic deviance and sexual boredom.
This time McQueen ups the word count for his third film, 12 Years a Slave, a sprawling tale of despair amid one of the darkest periods of humanity. The superb cast effortlessly portray a period where people weren’t people, they were property owned by morally ambiguous men who were part of a system that was natural to them.
Enough has been written about the film’s historical context and slavery’s horrors. McQueen has little to do with the violence on screen; its cinematic expression is lent from fact thanks to the film’s true story basing.
There are two stand-out scenes that demonstrate what men were capable of amid the frenzied heat of the Southern United States. McQueen once again frames his poignant messages with permanence. Uncomfortably long, refusing to grant the audience’s desire for respite, he replicates the cinematic excellence demonstrated in Hunger, famous for its 20 minute face-to-face discussion that sticks to a single cut and perspective.
12 Years A Slave is ultimately about willpower. Man vs. Man. Solomon in chains is as intense as the learned gentleman of Saratoga, NY pre-kidnapping. Fassbender is the evil centre point, choosing to portray vileness and pragmatic romantic confusion through a masterclass of acting. There are so many strong performances it would take an age to discuss their nuances and strength.
More worthy of praise is the film’s cinematography, a shooting that ranks among the best in recent Hollywood years (if you can place 12 Years A Slave in that category). Southern Georgia is as an important character as the human cast. Relentlessly controlling, swamps contrast with sprawling cotton fields as humidity hugs tight to the skin of those stuck inhabiting this harsh land. Beauty contrasts with the screams of terror. Sorrow seems to rise directly out of the everglades. Blood is the fertiliser of capitalism.
In such a strong Oscar season, 12 Years A Slave sits proudly above the rest. Any happiness is fleeting, rightfully barely touched upon. This is not a happy ending. Tears cannot heal the deep running physical and mental scars of a man held captive in utter moral desolation. One of the most important pieces of works in years, it cannot be missed.
My new year’s resolution is to write more. More travel, film, literature and if possible, musings on life. I begin with a return to my biggest passion, cinema and Plan B’s London-a-crumbling drama, Ill Manors.
As a born and bred Londoner, I’ve been witness to its brilliance, beauty, horrors and incredible social divide. Beneath the 2012 Olympics sheen is a city still struggling to free itself from severe integration issues, crime, youthful indifference and a cycle of violence and poverty.
Ben Drew (rapper Plan B’s real name) is no stranger to these societal concerns and neither is his film, a sprawling yet intimate look at the despair littering the Capital’s streets thanks to broken homes, drug abuse, gang culture and an abandoned generation that has nowhere to turn.
The picture painted on screen is relevant, shocking and deeply moving in parts. It’s unflinching in its depiction of everything deemed wrong by society, but it is unapologetic. It’s merely people getting by the only way they know how, often with tragic results to its characters and those around them.
Its score – written by Drew – is particularly apt at capturing the fact that this is nothing new and nor will it end any time soon. This is London’s underbelly and like the sparkling City skyscrapers, bustling West End and leafy suburbs, it is a side that will always be there.
It’s London, innit.
Merry 2014. I’m back in the UK for two months (well, I have been since the 6th December). It’s been weird coming back to something so familiar, but as someone so different. It’s also been a real challenge not to slip back into old routines (the bad, unproductive ones), but I think I’ve coped well. 2013 really was the (cliche incoming) best year of my life, hands down.
It was a realisation of a long dream. 12 months saving and many more imagining what the world out East had to offer.
Expect cool things in 2014, though with less continental hopping.
Take care, Marco
The time really does fly by when you’re working remotely and on the road 24/7. Since the last update, I spent a month in total for Hong Kong, sandwiched either side of two weeks in Mainland China – a big tick for me as it’s always been my number one country to visit.
After a quick stop to see the fire-prompted haze in Singapore, I spent six weeks in Australia (two in Sydney, three in a camper van all the way up to Cairns, and one in Melbourne.
I’m now in New Zealand for the next two months (one month in the north island using Auckland as a base of operations and one in the South going all LOTR on it).
After that I’m returning to Sydney for the rest of the year until heading back to the UK for two months at Christmas. 2014 holds some pretty special plans, but more on that soon.
Another three months fly by. Since my last ‘I’m alive’ update, I’ve spent more time in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and now I’m in Hong Kong / China for the months of May / June. Not much else to report – an update about South East Asia on No Film Left is coming soon.