All of Steve McQueen's films thus far have centered on the fight for control of a body. In his first, “Hunger,” that body belonged to hunger-striker Bobby Sands, played by Irish actor Michael Fassbender, whose emaciated form became, essentially, a theatre of political war. The film was brutal, austere, minimalist — as furiously controlled as it’s subject. In McQueen’s second film, “Shame”, the body was that of a sex addict, also played by Fassbender, propelled around lower Manhattan by appetites uncurbed — the opposite of Sands’s predicament. Critics snickered but there was no doubting McQueen’s singleness of focus: In his films the body is a battlefield, scarred and cratered by a fierce, existential cat-fight for autonomy. It was only a matter of time before he made a film about slavery…. As the slave girl Patsy, newcomer Lupita Nyongo, in one extraordinary scene, begs for a mercy killing with the sweet urgency of someone imploring for a kiss. As her oppressor, Fassbender has already drawn the lion’s share of praise, and yet as much as he commits physically to the part — he barks and bellows, staggers, stumbles and roars his way across the screen — I found myself missing the more filigree work that Ralph Fiennes put into Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List”, alternating hatred of the jews and lust for his maid, the tension creating diabolical little folds of denial, which Fiennes, further locating vanity in the man, smoothed away as if straightening a cowlick. No such minor venality ruffles the surface of Fassbender’s Epps, a man constructed entirely from monstrous appetites: for power, lust, whiskey. The movie, over-enthralled by his psychopathology, is diminished slightly in his shadow. It didn't take psychopaths to implement slavery though it certainly did produce them, like mutant marrows — the script, by John Ridley, follows Epp’s degradations to the millimetre. Far more penetrating, for my money, is the scene, much earlier in the film, in which with Paul Giammetti’s slave trader takes a potential customer on a tour of his salesroom. It’s an ordinary-enough looking drawing room — nicely lit, with beautiful bay windows — but for the row of semi-naked human beings standing by the fire-place. As Giametti goes around the room, poking and prodding their chests, showing off their teeth like horses, his joviality is almost intolerable, the insult far more lasting for not being intended at all — there are no feelings to hurt, because, for him, there are no people in the room. You want slavery in a single scene —how it existed as a system, a norm as ordinary as daylight — there it is.
Dec 23, 2013
REVIEW: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
From my review for Intelligent Life:—