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.




  • PatrickR

    Thanks for the ongoing posts about the London Fest! I’m appreciating the side trips you talk of as it reminds me of my one and only visit there a couple of years ago.

    I saw 12 Years a Slave this weekend and I think I may have rode the ‘hype’ wave a bit too much wih this one. I guess I expected a little more than what was there.

    Comments on Awards Daily and just everywhere else promise that this film will shed light on unseen facts about the slave trade. I believe I even read one comment about it putting to rest all the GWTW-mammy portrayals. I disagree on both counts – citing Roots – the mini series as being responsible for all of that. This film tells another story from era – which is a good thing – but it doesn’t really bring anything new in terms of storytelling in general.

    I went in thinking that this would be in the Schindler’s List catergory – meaning difficult to watch – but necessary on many levels. It is difficult to watch – and perhaps even necessary – but Schindler’s List goes beyond its subject matter, telling its story in an original and highly artistic way. I didn’t see anything original in the story telling here – except perhaps that the violence was amped up a bit from what I’d seen in Roots.

  • SallyinChicago

    This may be a bit long.
    Saw 12 Years today. Audience was about 1/2 full for the 11:15am show. I started reading the ebook (free online) to prepare me for his story and to know the characters. It helped, because I knew each person’s role and personality and how they interacted.
    The movie is a slow buildup and those last 10 minutes, when (spoiler) Solomon’s rescue packs a wallop and is worth the long wait of watching the slaves toil and get the snot whipped out of them.
    I also felt, as a minority, and someone who has a similar ancestry background (My Great-great grandmother bore 13 children, half of them by the white landowner, and the land was stolen from his children who he left in his will upon his death) that I understood the obsession/possession of the white landowner for Patsy. I thought Lupita gave the strongest performance, hers was more complex. She was deeply in despair and was trying to find some fun and happiness by visiting the Shaws only to go back to the plantation and be treated less than human. She was the best worker, but the most misused.
    Solomon at least had a taste of freedom, knew what it felt like, and just when he was about to give up the rescue comes.
    I thoroughly thought I was there on the plantation and was immersed in every demeaning (and kind) action towards the slaves. I was invested in the lives of Patsy and Solomon, and esp. Patsy. I don’t think anyone will walk away not wondering what happened to her?
    Growing up, I read all the historical books like “before the Mayflower” and grew up in the civil rights era. I had an “image” of what slavery was like by looking at newspapers and reading books, but this movie puts it right there in your face. You cannot turn away.
    At one point, 12 Yrs almost fell into one of those slutty romance movies (see Original Sin with AJ, one of the sluttiest romance movies ever made) but McQueen pulled it back into focus. No other Black actor could have played Solomon. Not one name actor. And I don’t believe another Director could have made this movie.
    If you haven’t seen the movie, get the free ebook before going in. John Ridley did a great job translating the book to screen.

  • SallyinChicago

    Oh BTW, the boxoffice seems good in limited release:
    $960K in 19 theaters for a strong $50,525 PSA, placing it in the upper echelon for the year

  • DBibby

    Ida wins the Best Film award at London Film Festival:

    Of course the competition selection is a small one, and doesn’t include films like Gravity or 12 Years a Slave. I’m glad I chose to see Ida and Ilo Ilo (winner of the Best First Feature award, which it also won at Cannes). I enjoyed them both, though neither came close to 12 Years a Slave (my highlight of LFF) or a few other highlights (namely Blue is the Warmest Colour, All is Lost and Nebraska). Overall it’s been a good festival despite a few missteps. Thanks for the LFF coverage this year!

  • steve50

    Thanks for the post, Sallyinchicago – yours (and your opinion) is one of the ones I was watching for.

    Can’t wait to see it.

  • john oliver

    I agree with your assessment of the film, it did not live up to the hype.
    I would call it the feature version of Roots.

  • Patrick Mulholland

    You’re very welcome!

    I’d say that Steve McQueen’s storytelling in 12 Years a Slave is even more original and artistic than Steven Spielberg’s in Schindler’s List.

  • Patrick Mulholland

    Sally, I normally think you talk shite, but this is a very intelligent response to the film. Lovely to hear what you thought about it.

  • Patrick Mulholland

    Goodness! I can see how some might adore Ida; I liked it, but considered it one of the weakest films I saw at LFF. Though I didn’t see any duds at all. Only a little bit surprised it won, because yes it is a good film.

  • Patrick Mulholland

    Also np for the coverage, it’s been a pleasure. There’ll be another post later today too!

  • PatrickR

    Wow! Details, please!

  • Patrick Mulholland

    McQueen presents the experience of slavery as the horrific experience it must have been. The image of Michael Kenneth Williams drooling out of the mask, Hans Zimmer’s thumping score and the intimidating sound design. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivering that sombre, sorrowful stare down the camera, confronting us, the people of today, with the reality of the situation as it was, and as it is. The sound overlapping from one scene to another. The shots of machinery in extreme close-up, the camera slowly moving up and up yet the image threatening to never relent, never change.

    Just a few examples.

  • Jonny

    Very different audience than at NYFF. During the credits Chiwetel Ejiofor got the most applause and Lupita Nyong’o the second. Fassbender got a modest amount of applause.

  • CB

    PatrickR – we both completely agree. It was a good film, but not really a transcendent experience that will stick with me forever. A very good film – but it did not do anything NEW or really great in terms of cinema. I never felt that the theme of what it means to be free then suddenly not-free was ever truly explored, nor did I ever get a sense of time passage. It’s great to see such a well-written, well-directed film about slavery find its way into the mainstream, but nothing in the film hadn’t been done before and more viscerally in Roots, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, tons of historical slave narrative, and other cinema. Rather, it is a movie that is important as a social document, but not as a piece of cinema.

    McQueen is a fantastic director – and ‘Shame’ remains, for me, his most stunning work – it is absolutely involving and is seared into my memory. 12 Years a Slave is a very well-done piece of craftsmanship, with an unbelievable performance by the Lupita Nyong’o.

  • Caroline

    Paddy Mulholland where are you from? The reason I ask is that I think you are from the same country as me (Ireland – by way of Killarney (Fassbender’s home town). Anyway, looking forward to the film, hoping Fassbender gets a nod and a win, his hometown would be happy…

    I always look forward to all the comments but I do tend to look for yours Paddy.


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