Film review: 12 years a slave (15, 134 min)

12 Years A Slave: Chiwetel Ejiofor
12 Years A Slave: Chiwetel Ejiofor
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Tale of slavery lands sledgehammer blow

As a contemporary visual artist, Steve McQueen ploughed his own furrow. He collected the coveted Turner Prize in 1999, ahead of bookie’s favourite Tracey Emin, for three pieces including a video work Deadpan in which he recreated the falling house stunt from the Buster Keaton silent film Steamboat Bill Jr.

In 2006, McQueen responded powerfully to the war in Iraq, mounting portraits of killed British soldiers on stamps entitled Queen And Country.

When he made the transition to feature-length films, McQueen was equally uncompromising. Bravura debut Hunger recounted the story of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) through the eyes of fellow Irish Republican prisoners while his incendiary 2011 follow-up, Shame, dealt candidly with sex addiction.

For his third feature McQueen considers the slave trade from the perspective of a free black man, who was kidnapped in 1841 and suffered 12 years of abuse on the plantations of Louisiana before he was reunited with his family.

Based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup and adapted for the screen by John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave is a masterpiece every artfully composed frame searing the retina with indelible images.

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives with wife Anne (Kelsey Scott), daughter Margaret (Quvenzhane Wallis) and son Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler). An encounter with two seemingly respectable gentlemen, Messrs Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam), changes Solomon’s life forever.

He wakes up in chains and learns he has been sold into slavery. Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) takes delivery of Solomon and ignores pleas for leniency, snarling, “My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”.

Solomon’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is kind but fate delivers him to sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps takes a shine to one of the slave girls, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), to the chagrin of his unfeeling wife (Sarah Paulson).

Solomon is caught in the crossfire, finding a means to orchestrate escape with the help of abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt).

Now the deserved frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars it would seem impossible to deny 12 Years A Slave an entire mantelpiece of gold statuettes.

Ejiofor breaks our hearts as an honest, decent man, who retains his humanity in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

Nyong’o is also eye-catching in her big screen debut while Fassbender simmers with rage and self-loathing.

McQueen’s directorial brio comes to the fore, memorably in a horrific whipping sequence shot in a single take.

It’s not a film that demands repeat viewings. Like a sledgehammer to the solar plexus, once is enough. But McQueen’s sensitive yet unflinching portrait of suffering will stay with us forever.

Drama. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhane Wallis, Cameron Zeigler, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam. Director: Steve McQueen.