THOSE bracing themselves for a weepy sentimental triumph over ye olde slavery epic are more likely to exit 12 Years a Slave feeling horrified and outraged on behalf of Solomon Northup. No doubt that was the aim of the film-makers, more than winning three Academy awards.
Based on Northup’s 1853 autobiography, British director McQueen and American first time screenwriter John Ridley introduce violin-playing Solomon, his wife and two children as happy free middle-class New Yorkers in 1841.
Lured to Washington D.C. by the promise of work, your gut feels like its twisting in knots as Northup is kidnapped, beaten and stripped of his clothes and name and sold down the river into slavery at a Louisiana cotton plantation.
Northup strives to survive to return home to his family despite the weak financial self-interest of his first owner Ford (Cumberbatch) and the alcoholic sadism of his second “master” Epps (Fassbender).
London actor Ejiofor excels in the lead, expressing more in subtle movements than words can say. Lupita Nyong’o is ground through the mill as Patsey, the favourite slave of Epps, in her Oscar winning film debut.
McQueen also assembles a memorable supporting cast for Northup to encounter on his unwilling odyssey.
Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr Banks) is the trader who shows a white couple around slaves as if they were used cars. Michael K Williams (RoboCop) plays a doomed slave and Sarah Paulson is astonishing as the Southern belle from hell.
Co-producer Brad Pitt cameos as the Canadian labourer who could be Soloman’s salvation.
McQueen’s style is formal and his camera unflinching in the deliberately prolonged moments of brutal violence and the faces of his traumatised perspiring leads.
12 Years a Slave is a simple but important story, told with intelligence, intensity and impeccable acting. The film should be the touchstone of a new debate on slavery in the past and a lightning rod to eradicate slavery in the present.
FOUR POPCORNS OUT OF FIVE
12 Years a Slave (R16)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Salt), Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock).
Director: Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger).
Screening: Reading Cinemas Queenstown