This is the harrowing true story of well-educated family man, Solomon Northup, who in 1841 found himself being kidnapped from his home in Saratoga and sold into slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon, who is bestowed the slave-name of Platt upon being captured, the author of the 1853 book upon which the film is based. He is first sent by boat to a slave trader, played by Paul Giamatti, who sells him as a package-deal with a female slave Eliza, on to sympathetic plantation owner Mr Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Circumstances conspire and Solomon finds himself being traded on to the horrific Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man known to “break” slaves. Mr and Mrs Epps (played expertly with pure spite and venom by Sarah Paulson) are without doubt two despicable human beings, but we are subtly reminded their actions were sanctioned by the society around them, making them all the more shocking.
12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch, such is the unflinching view that McQueen gives us of Solomon’s time in slavery. His camera lingers on Ejiofor’s face, capturing every nuance of pain, anguish and despair, often without a single word being spoken and only the soft sounds of the bayou as a soundtrack. A song sung by a group of slaves translates into a heart-wrenching scream with Ejiofor’s face exuding frustration, grief and anger in every word. It is in many ways a beautiful film as it is has been written, designed, played and filmed with such care and attention to detail, but the story it tells seems so very alien it is often hard to stomach.
McQueen’s previous full-length films, Hunger and Shame, took a similarly uncompromising view of their subject matter. With this third film from McQueen starring Michael Fassbender the pair are cemented as a dream (nightmare) team of emotionally-raw film-making.
The cast are uniformly brilliant, from the heart-wrenching performance of fellow-slave and main target of the Epps’ fury Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, who frankly deserves ALL the awards) and Ejiofor’s nuanced take on Solomon, to Paul Dano as brutal over-seer Tibeats, and Brad Pitt as sympathetic Canadian carpenter, Bass.
Unflinching, uncompromising, horrific, but beautifully made and brilliant, 12 Years a Slave is a must-watch film.