The set up is simple: It is Pre-Civil War United States and Solomon Northup (Chiwetelu Ejiofor), a free man from New York, is abducted, stripped of his identity and sold into a life of slavery in the south. Over the following decade the renamed “Platt” first becomes the property of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), before being sold down the river to Epps (Michael Fassbender), an unhinged psychopath who’s obsession with slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) edges him into regular fits of cruel, violent rage.
Based on the memoirs of Northup himself, 12 Years A Slave treads similar thematic ground to last years Django Unchained. But where Tarantino doused his film in an ostentatious, gleeful revisionist sheen, McQueen provides nothing of the sort. His is a sober, often painful study that has its basis in cold punishing fact.
As is to be expected from a Turner prize winning artist, every image is precise and sharp, there is no flab or excess here. Stunningly photographed, prolonged indelible images that infiltrate the mind and induce unease. Central of which is a extended shot of Northup, strung up from a tree as punishment, his feet barely reaching the ground, life continuing around him in ignorance. It’s deliberately stark, visceral and uncomfortable viewing. You want it to stop, but of course it doesn’t.
The film is full of these unflinching, devastating moments, most of which are provided by the deranged Epps, who delivers an unrelenting stream of degrading, painful punishments to his slaves.
Most notable is a scene in which the master whips field girl and object of his obsession, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, in an impressive understated performance), then forces Solomon himself to provide the torture. It’s unpleasant, sickening and all the worse because it’s true. These things happened, and they happened regularly.
McQueen counterbalances these frequent abhorrent occurrences with punctuations of elegance, shots of the deep south in its serene beauty, the flickering embers of a dying fire, moments of emotional release for Northup.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with much deserved praise being heaped on Ejiofer. His natural performance delivering a humanity and empathy, a surrogate for the audience, a way in to this horrific situation. Descending through the emotional spectrum, his often silent performance relies on a mastery of the physical, minute changes in his face or stance telling a story without the need for words. Michael Fassbender is also impressive, delivering a performance of pure fire and brimstone, terrifying and repugnant. Both are awards worthy.
However, the film isn’t entirely perfect. Narratively speaking, it never truly gives the impression that Northup has been living this misery for many years. While the pace is often broken by a disjointed structure as Northup is dragged from owner to owner and back again. It’s also possible to gripe that the film tells the story of the man who survived, who ultimately did get his happy ending where countless millions did not. This film shows us a journey into (and out of) slavery, allowing us to leave at the end with him.
But of course, these are all inherent in the source material, and in making a film for the masses McQueen has to consent to certain stylistic constraints. And, in the end films about American Slavery are so vanishingly rare, especially as blunt and real as this, it’s hard to find flaws in the intent.
Ultimately, 12 years a slave is an overwhelmingly accomplished film, weighty and powerful. A story of the triumph of courage through an unthinkable hell, a real life pain and trauma for millions, told in a beautiful often brutal and uncompromising fashion, and yet it comes through the other side with no shortage of grace and beauty. A elegant, emotional film.