out of Five
Running time: 133
Steve McQueen's latest film is a flat-out masterpiece, a magnificent, uncompromising and emotionally devastating slavery drama with a superb script, stunning direction and an extraordinary central performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor.
What's it all about?
Directed by Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave is based on the memoir by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an accomplished violinist and family man living in upstate New York, who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. Renamed Platt by garrulous slave trader Freeman (Paul
Giamatti), Solomon is first sold to relatively benevolent plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), before being sold on after a violent incident to new owner is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is a violent and abusive man. He is also sexually obsessed with one of his slaves (Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey), which infuriates his malicious wife (Sarah Paulson). Solomon however does what it takes to survive and attempts to maintain his humanity in the process, but as the years go by, Epps becomes increasingly unhinged.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is sensational as Solomon (certain to land a Best Actor nomination come Oscar time, if not the award itself), delivering a compassionate, deeply moving performance that, like the film itself, avoids easy sentimentality; pointedly, Solomon does what he can in the face of naked injustice, but he is not a heroic figure in the traditional sense and is savvy enough not to risk his life in the process. This culminates in a horrific and utterly devastating scene where he is forced to whip Patsey, one that's harder to watch than it would be to see Solomon himself being lashed.
The supporting cast are equally good, particularly McQueen's regular collaborator Fassbender, who makes Epps a much more emotionally complex character than the standard cut-and-dried evil master. There's also terrific work from Cumberbatch, Dano and Paulson, while even the smaller parts leave a powerful impression, notably Giamatti's casually breezy trader and Alfre Woodard as a former slave now living a life of luxury after marrying her besotted owner.
McQueen's direction is masterful throughout – he has dropped the more arthouse-inclined leanings of previous features so that the film plays like a straight Hollywood narrative, but the craft is undeniable, not least in a chilling and deeply upsetting sequence where Solomon gets saved from hanging but is left to dangle for the rest of the day with his feet barely touching the ground. The film is also packed with unexpected moments that are both jarring and unsettling, such as the sight of a defiant slave Solomon meets on the slave ship, who is joyously reunited with his master when they reach land.
12 Years a Slave is a powerfully directed, brilliantly acted and devastatingly emotional drama that's almost certainly headed for Oscar glory - unmissable.