Often, movies that come unsung turn out to be the most amazing. There were two American works that stood out at the 10th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival. Hollywood surely knows how to rivetingly script and say a story.
Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is a simple sweet tale narrated by a 13-year-old boy, Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith), who is grappling with his own sexual awakening as he is with his mother, Adele Wheeler’s (Kate Winslet), abandonment. The movie is certainly Winslet’s, who after a series of pregnancy-related mishaps finds her husband walking out on her. And into the mother-son’s lives comes Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a convicted murderer (guilty of killing his wife), who forces himself into Adele’s home and makes himself comfortable -- till the time she falls in love with him. She is then even willing to run away with him to Canada.
The plot is set in the 1987 America, in a small provincial town – where people are helpful -- sometimes to the point of being intrusive. When Henry goes to the shop and asks for a razor, the guy at the counter thinks that the boy has made a mistake. He should be taking back home a razor for a woman, for Adele has no man around.
As the film progresses, it gets increasingly difficult for Adele to harbour the fugitive man, who may not have, as we are gently pushed into believing, intended to kill his young wife. For, after all there is no violence in Frank. He is absolutely tender, but the movie, adapted from the fine 2009 Joyce Maynard novel, has to finally get on to that bumpy stretch for that element of dramatic excitement.
However, Reitman does not allow Labor Day to slip into a Salman Khan Dabangg look-alike. When Frank is cornered, he does not get into foolhardy acrobatics – as we in India are so used to seeing. Reitman adopts a style that is subtle and real, and his characters do not go on an emotional overdrive. Winslet’s Adele handles the enormity of her pain and frustration with admirable restraint and even dignity. Here is an emotionally drained, physically withered woman who finds that spark to live when romance knocks on her door. The transformation is wonderfully, wonderfully conveyed.
Yes, Labor Day has the late 1980s feel. And one is convinced, at least when one looks at Reitman’s canvas, that small town America was like this with its modest folks who would be concerned if a 13-year-old lad is seen loitering on the street. There is a touching scene when a cop finding Henry on road asks him to hop on to his car, and takes him back home.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave takes us back further into time -- to the 1840s America, a time when the nation was struggling to hold its union together. While the southern States with their cotton plantations were bent on retaining black slavery (treating these men and women as not more than mere property), the north wanted to abolish this inhuman, degrading system.
McQueen’s movie is about one such slave, Solomon Northup (excellently played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold to southern slave masters. Based on true events, Northup is finally and miraculously rescued after 12 years of bondage – when he faces torture, treachery and shame.
In recent times, we have seen other slave dramas, the most impressive being Django Unchained with its rebels. But neither Northup nor the others in the film are gutsy enough to fight the animal savagery of their white masters – and throughout the movie, I kept wondering why these tortured blacks did not revolt. But I suppose the film is all about an actual happening.
Northup published his memoir -- detailing his nightmarish 12 years – in 1853, a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out. The memoir inspired two stage adaptations. However, it was forgotten after that, and McQueen work is bound to bring the story back into the limelight, with the movie having bright chance at the coming Oscars.
British helmer McQueen, known for his Hunger and Shame, broadens his canvas in 12 Years A Slave to paint a picture of the American society on the eve of the civil war – fought between the southern and northern States. And much like Gone With The Wind, McQueen’s work uses the strife as a backdrop to tell us tales about the men and the women who lived then. While, Gone With The Wind is essentially a love story set in the south and in which black slaves are not shown as being ill treated (with some even aghast at the idea of freedom), 12 Years A Slave presents the horrific side of slavery, where white masters were unimaginably cruel. There are whippings on the plantations with hangings, and to top it all, there is sheer drudgery of everyday life which slaves have to endure.
Ejiofor is superb as the tortured soul, who craves to return to his wife, two kids and a comfortable life in New York. It is a demanding role all right that may well fetch him an acting Oscar.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 10th Dubai International Film Festival)