Emancipation finds itself being a mediocre to average affair that has genuine potential and a smattering of standout moments.
WRITTEN BY JACK RANSOM / DECEMBER 12, 2022
Apple TV+’s latest feature, which has received a cinematic release., which has received a cinematic release, sees a runaway slave (Will Smith) forge through the swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey to escape plantation owners led by the vicious Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), a journey that nearly killed him.
Returning to our screens after arguably *the moment* of the year (which we will refer to as the slappening), there is no doubt that this would have been promoted heavily by the studio and Smith himself to gain traction for awards season. That being said regardless of the actor’s current industry situation, Emancipation may tick off a lot of awards-bait boxes, but it unfortunately certainly isn’t up to the standard of many of the features it is heavily similar to.
After quickly separating Peter from his family and having him arrive at the brutal and relentless misery that is the plantation, the film sets a consistently harsh and uncompromising tone that certainly doesn’t let up throughout the 130 minute duration. Whilst the backdrop is a harrowing and still horrific era of history there is undeniably a sense of déjà vu to the proceedings. Unfortunately the lacklustre writing is simply a series of repeated beats seen more effectively in other pictures and due to the almost immediate separation (and lack of focus upon them in general) I never was particularly emotionally invested in the fractured family at the plots centre.
Emancipation is at its best when the gruelling and gritty pursuit across the swamps is in play. Fassel and his lackeys are remorseless and persistent, always on the tail of the escapees, Pete’s various survival techniques are interesting and the bursts of violence scattered throughout are suitably impactful. Though very impressive from a technical perspective and boasting blockbuster scope, the finale battlefield conflict feels tacked on and doesn’t leave the visceral impact it intends to.
Stylistically, the monochrome colour palette is a double edged sword. There are some genuinely fantastic shots here and memorable camerawork techniques but it also finds itself looking garish and desaturated during daytime scenes and too glossy and flashy to be authentic. Fuqua frequently incorporates gratuitous slow-motion, that, whilst cinematic, comes off as a little bit odd considering the material and setting they are working with.
Smith is clearly giving his all here and he is certainly passionate for the material (he also serves as a producer). The role demands a lot of physicality and his constant on edge, quick thinking and prominent emotional weight does just about make up for the lack of character personality investment. Ben Foster almost tips into scenery chewing, once again the role is a checkbox ticker, but Foster brings a sense of genuine menace and hatred to it.
Emancipation finds itself being a mediocre to average affair that has genuine potential and a smattering of standout moments. Smith gives his all, some of the stylistic choices work effectively and the harshness of the tone is appropriate. However, the emotional impact simply isn’t there, the pacing and tension fluctuates and the dialogue is frequently cliche ridden.