Tommy Horner writes an in-depth review of the Oscar winner, noting the brilliant cinematography, and contemplating what slavery says about human nature.

After receiving so many awards and being heaped with critical acclaim, it seems quite a task for this reviewer – a self-professed film-lover rather than expert – to offer up something insightful with so many better trained eyes on the same screen. What was immediately striking about the film was that it was brilliantly painted, a visually lucid picture in motion. In other words, the cinematography was definitely award-worthy.

Calling it lucid is my way of explaining that in all its texture and colour, from green parks in New York to plantation tracks shrouded in tree-high crops, each shot felt full of life. The shots were long, and didn’t shift, not static nor constantly rolling, but flowing through the action. The illusion of life didn’t feel like an illusion, which can only benefit a film telling something shockingly and historically true.

One particular scene has been getting a lot of attention, and for very good reason. When Solomon Northup is hung, and then saved, he is left swinging on tiptoes from a tree whilst the routine around him lazily turns another cycle. It is a well-crafted stage in the story, extremely well shot too, as in both senses it is a break from the estranged, brutal yet multifarious prison the character is witness of and to. A formerly free man wrongly abducted and enslaved, he finds a world complicated in its range of experiences, the whole state of affairs being at the same time alien and strangely human. Solomon is left clinging to the little life he has left as the camera pans to take in the depth of detail around him, with the hanging tree and his hanging body as just one isolated part of the scenery unfolding. The facade of daily life is both broken and intact, Solomon out of sync with the normality, but at the same time he is a part of it. The horror, as with other horrors, remains some sort of unspoken facet, some sort of disregarded reality.

The ‘peculiar institution’, as the Southern slave society was often referred to, is given an effective treatment in 12 Years a Slave, following the trend of other films such as Lincoln by revisiting and reconstructing a true image of its era. Everything appears both beautiful and rich, yet in the turn of one gruesome scene the stage is set for an execution. Elsewhere in the story Solomon stumbles in the darkness of the forest to discover the lynching of several blacks. Solomon’s second master, under cover of night, abuses one female slave he seems to adore in his own twisted way. It is the mark of great screenwriting that the viewer can both associate with and detest the existence of each person in the plot, all the more since they truly existed.

It all proves to be as peculiar as life, and as representative of the original telling by Solomon Northup himself. The brutal incidences of slavery are often secluded acts, and what is so evocative in this film is that they occur as tumultuous peaks after minutes of still, calm rolling of days into one. This long series of events is an epic in which the audience becomes absorbed into, awaiting some sort of miracle that could come soon, or never. When it appears that things are moving forward they can take a sharp turn elsewhere, and when life seems eerily mundane it suddenly and drastically wrenches the viewer back from silent bystander to disgusted onlooker. But, through it all, a strange, longing hope and amazement remains.

A film to brood over, and also one that reaffirms what we already know ourselves to be the good and bad of human nature. It is rewarding for the duration, if not difficult to comprehend.