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London Film Festival: 12 Years a Slave


I saw Steve McQueen’s Hunger on opening weekend in 2008. The UK was one of the very first countries to see his debut feature, and the Belfast screening was packed, of course. It was the best film I saw that year. A little over two years ago, I was having a pretty bad day, and decided to treat myself. Rather than wait for its January release, I booked rail and sail to Manchester, via Dublin and Wales, for an early-December screening of Shame, followed by a Q&A with McQueen after. For this screening, I stayed up until 2am, walked into town to the bus stop, got lost in Dublin, waited outside for hours for the boat, and spent most of the next day on various trains. 36 hours with just about no sleep, all to see one film. And it was the best film I saw that year.

Yesterday, the very thought of seeing just two films in one day was so unappealing I paid almost £15 for a ticket to see another. Today, I took things a bit easier. Two would do me today, especially as the first of those two was 12 Years a Slave. You’ve probably heard all those rave reviews out of Telluride and Toronto, huh? The capacity screening in Odeon West End wasn’t even the film’s first showing at LFF. Two American girls sat down beside me. You know that bit in In a World… where Lake Bell rips the shit out of that girl’s voice? These two are that girl, only considerably less irritating, I’ll add. Their droll platitudes suggested they weren’t very well acquainted: “That’s so awesome…” was a particular favourite of the pair. But they spoke with more intelligence on the films they had seen in London than anybody else I’d overheard since arriving here last Sunday.

What surprised me most about 12 Years a Slave was how traditional it felt in comparison to McQueen’s previous features. But that’s attributable to the time span of the story (12 years, obvs), which doesn’t purport to allow for the kind of intensive psychological study that I’m used to in his work. He achieved that all the same, though, and an equally intensive physical study that I’m equally used to. Solomon Northup waking up suddenly to find his wrists and ankles in chains, chains which he’ll surely never be able to be shod of, is one of the most powerful moments in any film this year. The film is full of those, and I was taken aback by how riveted I was to this brilliant work of cinema. It functions as a horror film, its content is so distressing.

We Brits don’t show our appreciation like most other nations. A small round of applause has been all that audiences here have afforded only some of the films I’ve seen, even those attended by cast and crew members for Q&As – even I’ve felt a tad sorry for them as they take to the stage to people leaving their seats and talking as though the show was over. You gotta love how little we care! The applause for 12 Years a Slave was by far the strongest I’ve yet heard here, and it resumed as the cast credits appeared on screen. Alas, it was loudest for Michael Fassbender, whom I heard several folk rave about on the slow exit out of the theatre. No-one mentioned Chiwetel Ejiofor, though he did enjoy some applause. Lupita Nyong’o did not, and no-one mentioned her. Even Paul Dano was praised by two. I expect Benedict Cumberbatch might have been the recipient of the most acclaim were Fassbender not among the cast, or perhaps Brad Pitt. But Lupita Nyong’o? It doesn’t much matter how good she is (and boy, is she), if people don’t know her name (nor how to pronounce it), and if people don’t know her face, who even is she? If the Academy dares snub her… gosh, if. At least I know I’ll never have to learn to forgive them. It wouldn’t be the last travesty they commit. So let’s not get our hopes up. [full review at ScreenOnScreen)

If 12 Years a Slave wins the Best Picture Oscar, it’ll be the first film in 22 years to do so that I have rated four stars. I haven’t yet seen Gravity, nor any of the unreleased / unseen films, so they may be able to contend for a similar position. But that’s pretty significant.

My decision not to occupy my afternoon with another visit to the cinema may have been a wise one; my decision not to occupy my afternoon with anything else of any note may not. There are only so many hours you can spend perched on a padded bench in BFI Southbank, as pleasant as it may be in there. And there are only so many hours my laptop can spend without charging. A few snaps around central London, a wee snack, a stroll along the Southbank, aw sure that’s all grand. But then my iPod ran out of battery along with my laptop. And my phone ran pretty low too. What does a child of the 90s do without modern technology? Sulk.

The film showing in NFT 1 prior to my second film of the day, Heli, was The Lady from Shanghai. You’ll never catch me spending money on going to the cinema to watch old films when I can watch them for free on TV or online. But who did I catch attending this screening? Mike Leigh. I sneakily attempted to nab a photo of him before he entered the screen, but failed. I less sneakily attempted as he exited, and succeeded. Pretty sure he noticed me both times. I retreated back to the corner and sat down on my bench again. He walked past a few moments later and gave me an enigmatic look. I’ve still no idea whether or not he noticed me in the first place, and if he did, what his opinion was of my fanboy behaviour, as much as I tried to conceal it. I’m a huge fan of Mike Leigh’s work, but I know were I in his position, I’d have little but contempt for a fool in a fluorescent orange beanie taking random photos of me just living my life.

lff leigh

Despite not having been looking forward to it as much as some other films since I booked my ticket for it, I eventually did manage to anticipate the screening of Heli with some excitement. Though by no means an exciting film, it’s actually a very good one. It seems Amat Escalante has found a better use for his stark style of filmmaking than in his last film, Bastards, which I thought was a bit sensationalist and amateur in feel. Heli is a deceptively unusual film, at once a prime example of bleak social realism and a curiously fantastical vision of life. It may or may not be actively making statements on humanity. It’s provocative cinema of the highest regard.

Tomorrow’s my last full day here, as I leave early Monday morning. I’ll be seeing Claude Lanzmann’s documentary The Last of the Unjust, which will surely be excellent, and Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s ‘neo-Giallo’ noir The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears.