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Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

12 Years a Slave

12 years a slave12 Years a Slave is one of the more interesting examples of films to take slavery as its theme in the last couple of decades. There is a preponderance of films about the American Civil War, but the era that went before it and the circumstances leading to the war are not so well documented.

12 Years a Slave certainly redresses this. As the story of a free black man from New York set in the antebellum of the American Civil War who is enslaved in the south for twelve years (ta-da!), it clearly demonstrates a cause for the United States to grapple with the question of slavery in the 1860s, and in so doing fills a void in the dramatic canon on the subject.

The film is beautifully shot, and though it oversentimentalises in the way most American films do, and occasionally glosses over the plot in favour of a clever turn of phrase, I can almost excuse these ills given the nature of the subject matter and the skill of the screenwright and director.

The performances of the many well-known white actors in this film are likewise worthy of praise. Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti in particular provide a splendid bed for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s chilling performance as Solomon Northrup, and the equally empathic Patsey played by Lupita Nyong’o.

But what I am most fascinated by is the persistence of the recent obsession of Hollywood with slavery. The theme is certainly relevant, with slavery continuing in many parts of the world today, and slavery bears some comparison with other social justice issues, but that doesn’t seem to be the motivation and I don’t quite know what to make of it.

What seems most interesting about this modern slew of films about the American slave trade is that it stands alone, seemingly as a purely historical fascination, these films being almost entirely backward-looking. No allegories seem to be being made to more modern struggles like feminism or marriage equality, though they’d be easy references to make. The filmmakers seem to be ignoring the more recent practice of slavery, which continued well into the twentieth century even where it was ostensibly banned (for instance, Queensland and the British outposts in southern Africa), and more oddly in those places where slavery has continued into the twenty-first century.

These films don’t seem to be making much of a stand against modern slavery or against any modern societal ill in the way that stories such as The Crucible clearly denounced the persecution of Communists in the 1950s. They seem to sit merely as a historical account, and although they reinforce the anti-slavery position of the United Nations, they seem to be have little point beyond this, so I am surprised at the continuation of the theme.

Regardless of the reasons for these films, their quality is stunning. I just hope they find a purpose if they’re going to keep making them.

 

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 15 February 2014 in American Film, Film, Regency Enterprises

 

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Frankenstein

A friend’s intention to go see the National Theatre Live screening of Frankenstein this afternoon prompted me to tag along, and am I ever glad I didn’t miss this masterpiece! I’ve been a fan of this story since reading Mary Shelley‘s novel while at uni (this was extra-curricular and yes, I’m that big a nerd!). I have also been impressed by a film adaptation, namely Kenneth Branagh‘s 1994 one, which really brought the novel to life, but I cannot say that either of these seemed more pertinent to my own experience of the world than this play.

Nick Dear‘s script is a fascinating piece of material. A long portion of the beginning of the play proceeds with very few words, and as a playwright I know how difficult it is to craft a play without words. It is, in this instance, essential that this portion of the play not be crowded with words, not only for the sake of the story, but also to draw the focus to Frankenstein’s creation, rather than Frankenstein. It establishes a connection with this character that grounds the rest of the story, and really does take it to a different place from where Mary Shelley positioned her reader.

And it is this positioning that really establishes Nick Dear’s play as a twenty-first century product. The play insists that the audient be confronted by the ethics of creation and the assumption of scientific logic as the supreme voice of reason. And yet, it does this in the absence of a divine. Humankind, refreshingly, is not repositioned as god (as seems to be the fashion), but instead as a more humble, responsible denizen of the world, such as would not have been considered in the early 19th century. Several critical moments of realisation for Victor Frankenstein, played superbly by Benedict Cumberbatch in the version I saw, underpin this reading, and it is the sign of a talented playwright that the character can be so fully formed, and yet still embody such lofty notions without a little compromise.

But all that is very philosophical for a Sunday afternoon. The real joy is seeing these themes explored with such unassuming grace. The set seems to remodel itself with ease (which of course indicates that there is nothing at all easy about it), and the music likewise supports these amazing performers to create magic. The NT Live recording of course doesn’t quite emulate what must be an amazing effect created by what must be thousands of incandescent globes above the stage and auditorium.

What’s really impressive, though, is that a stage production is able to be translated to screen as well as this. Apart from a few moments when the editing left me feeling that a cut had been rushed, and what even the most pedestrian of actors (which these performers certainly are not) would have treated as a pause or silence was instead cut abruptly to the next bit of action, the translation of a stage production into, essentially, a film that can be screened anywhere around the world, is remarkable. I am astounded by the way it has worked, and although I had some hesitation about jumping on the NT Live bandwagon, if this is an indication of what they’re doing, I’m a convert.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 24 June 2012 in British Theatre, NT Live, Theatre

 

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