12 Years a Slave

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If 12 Years a Slave weren’t based on a true story I would find it hard to believe that the events depicted had not been exaggerated for the sake of melodrama. I found it so brutal, so shocking and so uncomfortable that it would have been preferable to believe that it had been embellished. But this is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York in 1841 who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he endures for 12 years before finally managing to secure his release.

This is pre-Civil War, pre-abolition America and director Steve McQueen’s portrait of slavery is a million miles away from the romantic Gone with the Wind depiction of avuncular plantation owners, kind mistresses and contented slaves. It’s relentless in its portrayal of the casual cruelty and violence experienced by Solomon and his fellow slaves – I’ve heard it criticized for being gratuitous and unnecessary but apparently the book on which it’s based contains far worse atrocities.
While there’s little let-up in the misery there are unexpected moments of kindness and beauty. The cinematography is sublime washing the landscapes with a peachy glow – sunrise over a Southern swamp, glassy water, flowing Spanish moss and overhanging trees – I found these scenes so evocative that they completely drew me into Solomon’s world. McQueen is not afraid to let the camera linger and often leaves the horror on the screen to be absorbed in total silence (I’m thinking of one scene in particular, part-way through the movie that’s almost impossible to watch for that reason, like trying not to look at a car crash). And because the score (by Hans Zimmer) is so sparing, the space only enhances the power of what is being witnessed.

The cast is uniformly superb but the following performances stood out for me: Lupita Nyong’o as the young slave-girl Patsey who steadily has her spirit broken through relentless abuse; Paul Dano (condemned I fear to a career playing greasy and spineless losers) as racist overseer’s mate John Tibeats; Michael Fassbender chillingly disturbing as the monstrous and sadistic plantation owner Epps and Sarah Paulson as his vicious, jealous wife (hard to decide who’s more repellant). And, of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is mesmerizing as Solomon – his face so expressive that there’s often no need for him to speak. The only vaguely weak link was Brad Pitt,  his character is arguably the most pivotal but I found him the least convincing.

At the risk of joining the hyperbolic chorus I found watching this movie a profound experience – I truly don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. It’s an exquisitely made film; beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, horrifying and compelling in equal measure.

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Rush

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My Dad got me into watching Formula 1 when I was a kid. It was when the Ayrton Senna/ Alain Prost rivalry dominated the sport and while I enjoyed watching the races, got a buzz from the speed and the power of the cars, it was their personalities and their on-off track sparring that really got me hooked (and made me and my Dad shout at the TV on Sunday afternoons.)

Rush dramatises another true-life racing rivalry between flamboyant Brit driver James Hunt and buttoned-down Austrian Niki Lauda as it reaches it’s peak during the dramatic 1976 Grand Prix season.

The tools used to tell the story were what you’d expect from a biopic: backstories relayed in a combination of flashback, voiceover and montage (but then, who doesn’t love a good montage?). Both drivers came from wealthy families, both rebelled; both had big ambitions and struggled to rise up the ranks of motor racing to achieve them. What really elevated the film was the fascinating contrast between the two characters and how well the actors portrayed them, and, of course, the racing sequences.

Chris Hemsworth arguably had a simpler role to play with James Hunt – a swaggering, larger than life, likeable playboy – all blond hair, bare feet and charm.  But he did it extremely well. For me Daniel Bruhl was exceptional as the self-contained, driven, frequently blunt and difficult-to-like Lauda. Despite his unlikeability (if that’s even a word) he moved me and in many ways, by the end of the film, he was the driver I was rooting for.

The supporting cast is good (I was very impressed by Olivia Wilde’s English accent as James Hunt’s first wife, Suzy Miller) but they are pretty much that: support for the 2 leads. Both Hunt and Lauda display different kinds of strength and courage as the drama escalates and it’s their polar opposite natures that drive the film and give it real substance and emotional punch.

For a film about Grand Prix motor racing clearly the racing sequences had to be good and they were as exhilarating as I’d hoped they’d be. Inventive and unexpected camera angles (inside drivers’ helmets, following wheel nuts onto tyres during pit changes), screaming engines and a top soundtrack (Hans Zimmer – the man’s a genius) totally captured the adrenaline rush of motor racing.  You’ll either come out desperate to drive a McLaren at top speed or convinced that anyone who does is a nutter with a deathwish.

Lauda’s horrific near-fatal accident during the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, in which he was severely burnt and inhaled toxic gases, was brilliantly done and uncomfortable to watch. Possibly even more disturbing were the scenes of his recovery as he was subjected to brutal medical procedures to vacuum his lungs – all while watching Hunt winning races and points in the driver’s championship. His return to racing just 6 weeks later is inspiring and moving. Powerful stuff.

Watching this film was an intense and genuinely emotional experience. More than anything it conjured up a strong nostalgia for the 1970s. For me that decade was chiefly a time of alarming knitwear and even more alarming facial hair on the adults around me but Ron Howard made it feel like a time of possibility, spontaneity and innocence: a time to jump in with both feet and see what happened.  That feeling stayed with me a long time after I left the cinema.

Rush provided plenty of action but with enough substance to make this film much more than the sum of its parts.