In the past few days I have read a story and seen a film that still occupy my thoughts. They are unconnected but have common themes: the callous depths to which humans stoop yet also their capacity for enormous courage.
On Friday night I continued with Sebastian Faulks’ A Possible Life (2012). Up to then, Geoffrey Talbot – decent chap, cricket enthusiast and fluent French speaker – had trundled through life inconspicuously enough. He then became involved with the French Resistance in WW2. I am desperately trying to avoid spoilers but Geoffrey was captured and dispatched to a concentration camp. The stark narrative spares little of the horror and brutal treatment meted out by humans with power over those without.
To survive, Geoffrey has to change his attitude from ‘someone will be along soon, I shouldn’t be here’ to coping with appalling conditions by picturing himself going out to bat at his favourite cricket ground. The whole novel (five seemingly unconnected chapters and characters) seeks to demonstrate how people “empathise, guess, manipulate, out-think, out-fight – and, where necessary, co-operate”. As I progress with the book I note our connections with the past and our links to each other and, despite the sometimes grim subject matter, it is ultimately uplifting.
And then Sunday afternoon I saw 12 Years a Slave. Brutality and injustice are shot-through this true story set amongst the sweltering swamps of the Deep South. I’d read that many scenes were filmed on the site of a former Georgia plantation and Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Soloman Northup, a free black American kidnapped into slavery, commented it felt like acting with ghosts. The camera captures Georgia’s eerie landscape – trees swathed in grey-white wisps which hang limply in the stifling heat. Director Steve McQueen’s background in installation art was evident in one key scene (again, really trying to avoid spoilers) where Northup’s fight to stay alive during a particularly cruel punishment goes on as the slaves of the plantation continue their own business in the background – an artistic sequence which highlights many of the dilemmas of a prisoner: to go and help would mean a similar punishment or death, but also their apparent acceptance of the violence is unsettling, most likely due to its frequency. There were few choices for a slave.
Neither book nor film flinches from its portrayal of behaviour beyond our own experience, together with revealing the power struggles and hierarchies inherent within both ‘organisations’. Both Geoffrey and Solomon shouldn’t have been in either concentration camp or caught up in slavery (no one should, of course). It is often said you don’t know how you will react to a crisis until you find yourself in one but both these men, in the midst of evil, find a way to survive.
The performances in 12 Years a Slave from Chiwetel, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch are compelling. Faulks’ writing is elegant and unsentimental. Both book and film follow the “empathise, guess, manipulate, out-think, out-fight – and, where necessary, co-operate” idea of humanity, put to the test in extreme circumstances.
If you’ve not read this book or seen this film yet, you should.