Brutal slavery epic is destined for awards

Cert 15 | By Simon Thomson
Five Stars

STEVE McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a brilliant film, but its brutality makes for difficult viewing. That might be the point.

Based on a memoir of the same name, the book’s subtitle offers a succinct, albeit bloodless, summary of the film: “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana”.

Impeccably played by awards-tipped Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup is the sympathetic core of the film. He is reduced to a chattel, without chance for appeal, and passed between owners; first to William Ford – deftly performed by Benedict Cumberbatch – an essentially good man, whose better nature is corrupted by an economy that cannot accept the humanity of slaves. He is then sold to out-and-out monster Michael Fassbender, who is fearless in his portrayal of the virulent Edwin Epps, a lecherous, jealous, capricious plantation owner who wields fear, violence and scripture to control every aspect of his slaves’ lives.

Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) directs with utter surety and the delicacy with which the film is composed, and the natural beauty of its Louisiana setting, reinforces the pervading sense of grinding terror. Hans Zimmer’s score takes in the chants and songs of the slaves, and neatly incorporates the fact that Northup was a professional fiddler prior to his kidnapping.

A number of recent films have dealt with slavery and its aftermath, notably Tarantino’s comic revenge thriller Django Unchained, and the nobly instructive paean to civil rights The Butler. 12 Years a Slave is considerably more substantial than either, and it has a feeling of veracity that could see it come to define slavery in the popular imagination in the way Schindler’s List has come to encapsulate the Holocaust. And like Schindler’s List, it often feels like an ordeal.

It’s the indifference to suffering that makes it so difficult to watch, and not just from the slave-owners, from whom it might be expected – the slaves themselves are compelled to block out the death, rape, and torture, because doing so is a necessity. An extended shot of a hanging man, straining to maintain his footing while children play behind him distils into a single image the inexpressible horrors of slavery.

Cert 15 | By Alex Dymoke
Four Stars

IS THERE any setting as romantically evocative as a railway? Is any figure so utterly devoid of romance as a railway enthusiast? Colin Firth adroitly embodies the contradictory connotations of trains – the nerdiness and the glamour – in his performance as Eric Lomax, the former Japanese prisoner of war upon whom The Railway Man is based.

It begins with a brief encounter between Lomax and Patti (played by the outstanding Nicole Kidman). Aboard a train in Scotland, he regales her with his intricate knowledge of Britain’s railways, and she sees the Darcy behind the NHS glasses. It’s 35 years since the end of the war, but Eric still bears the psychological scars, the rawness of which only become apparent to Patti after they marry.

Their faltering marriage is intercut with flashback scenes from his time in a Japanese prisoner of war facility. Captured in Singapore, Lomax is sent to the notorious labour camp the Japanese used to build the Burmese railway between 1942-43.

As a military engineer he’s initially marked out for privileged treatment, but ends up in the torture chamber after falling foul of camp rules. Too often these war scenes descend into WW2 parody: sadistic, shouty Japanese vs plucky Brits with torture-proof side-partings.

More interesting is Patti’s bravery in daring to challenge the culture of silence that predominated among Britain’s army veterans. These were the days before post-traumatic stress and mandatory talking therapies, when the standard response to trauma was to bury it beneath the clutter of ordinary life.

The trouble is, these wounds rarely stay buried – many of those who witnessed terrible things struggled to function in their professional and family lives. Kidman and Firth’s heartfelt performances eloquently state the case for facing up to the past.

Cert 12a | By Melissa York
Two Stars

DELIVERY Man tells the story of David Wozniak, a man who donated to a sperm bank over 600 times under the pseudonym Starbuck. The clinic gave his sperm to hundreds of women and boy did he deliver. David Wozniak discovers he has 533 kids and 142 of them have launched a legal challenge to find out who he is.

Vince Vaughn manages to be likeable as a character who is essentially an immature waster. In fact, Vaughn is so appealing in the role, he out-charms the kids he’s ignored for 20 years. Hundreds of these impossibly attractive twenty-somethings meet regularly to hold “find Starbuck” meetings, go on camping holidays and enthuse about their half brothers and sisters. It’s all a bit nauseating.

Unable to work up the courage to tell the Brady Bunch he’s their biological father, Wozniak follows them around and tries to favourably intervene in their lives. This makes for a ploddingly episodic narrative, and for a comedy, there aren’t many laughs. There are, though, a few touching moments, derived mainly from Wozniak’s attempts to get to know his disabled son.

The basic premise is fleetingly interesting but the script is torn between being a meaningful look at fatherhood and a light-hearted comedy. In the end it achieves neither. Ultimately, Delivery Man is, like its bland title, rather forgettable.

The Roundhouse | By Alex Dymoke
Five Stars

WHEN Fuerzabruta, the all-singing all-dancing South American theatrical extravaganza, re-opened the Roundhouse in 2006, it was massive hit. Now, after crashing their way around the globe on a mammoth world tour, they’re back.

And they’ve aged well. Literally translated as “brute force”, Fuerzabruta is undersold by its name. Yes, it’s out to engage the body more than the mind, but the technical skill of the performers elevate circus tricks to something altogether more impressive.

In the absence of any coherent shape or narrative, spectacular acrobatic vignettes are linked only by a pounding club beat. The Roundhouse space is used to maximum effect with trapeze artists racing each other round and round the venue’s vertical walls. Two water-filled tanks containing mermaid-like acrobats descend from the ceiling – a spectacle well worth the neck-ache. It’s an unashamedly populist treat.