Steve McQueen’s 2013 Academy Award-winning historical drama on Solomon Northup sold into slavery seems to receive a huge wave of awards and nominations, and is honoured by all major film festivals and ceremonies including the Oscars. Although his third feature film probably is the crowning achievement of his career (so far), McQueen is no one-hit wonder – his previous works deserve recognition too. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
A wonderful first film, ‘Hunger’ is about the 1981 Irish hunger strike led by republic prisoner Bobby Sands – Michael Fassbender doing one of the best performances of his career. Although some people might only know him from more (‘300’, ‘X-Men: First Class’) or less (‘Prometheus’, ‘Haywire’) successful commercial films, he is an incredible actor in more independent films, especially when directed by McQueen – they must have realised that too because they made two other films together. Sands and other IRA prisoners hoped to win political status and protested by refusing to shower and smearing faeces on the cell walls which was called the ‘dirty strike’. Later prisoners participated in a hunger strike that ended after ten of them, including Sands, starved themselves to death. Different parts of the film focus on different characters of the happenings – prison guards, prisoners, and finally Sands. He is determined to succeed by even dying for the cause – freedom. Fassbender managed to undergo extreme weight loss – this is not the first nor the last time actor had to lose or gain a lot of weight (we can mention Robert de Niro in ‘Raging Bull’, Christian Bale in ‘The Machinist’ or Matthew McConaughey in ‘Dallas Buyers Club‘) but watching the actor going through this transformation is quite shocking. McQueen uses systematic, conscious realism to tell his story – the 17 minute long static take of a priest (Liam Cunningham) trying to convince Sands to abandon his plan is one of the most impressive and memorable scenes of the film.
‘Shame’ might be the best Bret Easton Ellis film not written by Ellis – it is a raw, realistic approach to introduce Manhattan sex addict yuppie Brandon (Fassbender) living in emotional isolation until his equally troubled sister (Carey Mulligan) working as a part-time singer shows up in his apartment asking to stay with him for a few days. Brandon becomes frustrated and confused as his current life of internet pornography and one night stands, a life of avoiding attachment and responsibility seems to fail him. After unsuccessfully trying to start a relationship with his co-worker Marianne and different scenes of conflict with his sister he experiences an existential meltdown as he’s beaten up by the boyfriend of a woman he’s trying to seduce, and is being fellated by a man in a gay bar. The real story is in the untold details. Brandon and his sister’s intimate and discomforting relationship suggests that something might have happened in their past – maybe even a sexual affair between them. ‘Shame’ uses full frontal nudity, explicit sex scenes and McQueen’s realistic cinematographical elements and unconventional narrative to tell a nihilistic tale of dysfunctional human relationships and suppressed emotions. ‘Shame’ is not flawless – the suicide attempt of the girl can seem a bit clichéd and the plot doesn’t really exploit the visual opportunities of Brandon’s sex life, still, it is definitely worth watching more than once. The film received mixed reviews and the Academy completely ignored it, which really is a shame.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Even if the hype behind ’12 Years a Slave’ has something to do with the liberal message, even if it resembles Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ (which is a very different approach to the same subject a year earlier), and even if Hans Zimmer composed very similar chords to his musical piece titled ‘Time’ from the film ‘Inception’ to create the soundtrack, ’12 Years’ is a very good film. Mainly because of its director. McQueen does not make the mistake of over-romanticising the story based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, an African American man born free but kidnapped and sold as a slave to a cotton plantation. He lets the actions speak for themselves. After the thrill ride of beastly violence, cruelty and stupidity of white man in the 1840s (even though it is not as radical as Tarantino’s vision where most white people deserve to die) the climax of Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) reuniting with his family is truly heartbreaking. The single camera shots, long takes and static compositions guide the audience through the locations of the plantations. The most cruel scene would be Northup hanging from the tree, struggling to stay alive – it is just suffocating to watch. ’12 Years’ is more commercial than McQueen’s previous two films and has an impressive cast of talented actors such as Paul Dano and Brad Pitt in the supporting roles. Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o deserve every award they get and once again as the aggressive plantation owner Fassbender shows us that he can make great career choices. Although ’12 Years’ is aimed to appeal to a wider audience – in which it succeeds – McQueen does not give up his own way of filmmaking and continues making quality films. We are looking forward to the next one.