In this powerful drama from acclaimed director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Along with similar victims from upstate New York, Solomon is transported to the southern states where he is first acquired by a compassionate land owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then a harsh slave ‘breaker’ named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

12 Years A Slave is based upon an incredible true story and provides McQueen with a startling means to make this harrowing subject matter relatable to modern viewers. By focussing on the plight of a free man and immersing his audience in the moments immediately following Solomon’s abduction, McQueen elevates slavery from a historical event to a remarkably personal experience.

“McQueen elevates slavery from a historical event to a remarkably personal experience”

While 12 Years A Slave lacks some of the stylish flair of McQueen’s previous film, Shame – whose emotionally charged soundtrack and stunning photography of night-time New York made it one of 2012’s most impressively cinematic films – it generates intensity in simpler ways. McQueen is not afraid to let his scenes run on. As Solomon is left hanging by the neck following an altercation with vindictive slave master, Tibeats (Paul Dano), McQueen lingers on Solomon’s feet, scrabbling for traction with the ground. We watch as Solomon fights for each breath, yet, in the background, other slaves emerge from their cabins and go about their work as if nothing out of the ordinary is taking place. McQueen does not allow us to retreat from this cruelty and move on, we are forced to watch and let it sink in.

Neither is McQueen free and easy with violence, but rather lets the physical cruelty – in the form of repeated beatings – escalate in their severity as the film progresses. Psychological cruelty, however, weighs heavy from the outset. McQueen chooses to open his film with a moment of intimacy between two slaves; a desperate moment that leads to an outpouring of anguish and sets the tone for this emotionally charged drama.

While Solomon’s perspective offers a new way into the issue of slavery, it does not always feel like the most interesting or harrowing story on offer. The plight of the film’s female slaves is frequently more compelling, forcing Solomon to choose between heroism and survival. Through slave Eliza’s (Adepero Oduye) separation from her children, McQueen highlights the shocking disparity between the beliefs of the plantation wives and the feelings of the slaves who serve them, ‘Something to eat and some rest; your children will soon enough be forgotten’, says Mistress Ford. Later, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is trapped between her abusive and predatory master, Edwin Epps, and his jealous wife, played with icy contempt by Sarah Paulson.

The cast is littered with well deserved Oscar nominations. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s vulnerable and emotionally conflicted performance has earned him a Best Actor nomination, while Lupita Nyong’o is outstanding in her first film role as abused Patsey, receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. McQueen reunites with Michael Fassbender for the third time, who gives another first rate performance in the role of brutal plantation owner, Epps. Paul Dano embraces a darker role too giving us an egotistical and vengeful slave master, Tibeats. It follows his skillful portrayal of accused child abductor, Alex Jones, in last year’s thriller, Prisoners.

12 Years A Slave strikes a serious tone imbued with feeling due largely to it’s deeply personal perspective. 12 Years A Slave lacks some of the flair of McQueen’s earlier filmmaking but takes on a severe, visceral attention to detail that forces us to face the horrors of Solomon’s experience. Shedding the hefty weight of last year’s commanding but somewhat dry Lincoln, 12 Years A Slave is an approachable yet compelling and powerful film, making it a clear Oscars contender.

VERDICT:  ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✩    4/5

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