This was the only film I saw at the London Film Festival that got a standing ovation, after the audience had taken a minute or two to get their breath back. It’s a harsh and unforgiving examination of slavery, a bit like Django Unchained without the laughs.
Steve McQueen’s first two films were about men in the grip of something terrible – be it incarceration or sex addiction – now he has turned his attention to American slavery. This is a bit off piste for him, it feels more movie than art house. And it’s all the better for that – he’s given slavery the film it needed, something that doesn’t distract from the brutal truth with a neat soundtrack and some funny one-liners (not that Django was wrong to do that, it’s a cracking film). McQueen gave a short Q&A after the screening and said he’d wanted to do a slavery film for some time but hadn’t quite found the right story, then his wife tracked down Solomon Northup’s book and he knew immediately he’d found it. And whatever the horrors revealed in 12 Years a Slave, the biggest one of all is that this is someone’s life. It’s that knowledge that makes everything seem a million times worse than when you’ve seen it before.
Chiwetel Ejiofor eats up Solomon Northup’s story and spits it right back out again – he’s a revelation here, his first leading role and one that should pick him up a few major awards. Northup is angry, frustrated, downtrodden but never defeated as the free man who is abducted and sold back into slavery leaving a wife and family behind him. You feel every bit of his frustration and his fury – and his inability to do anything to rescue himself or his fellow slaves. Most notable among these is Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) who will probably have a few award nominations of her own to contend with. And as for Michael Fassbender – he’s superb here as notorious slave breaker Edwin Epps, an unspeakably cruel man on the very edge of sanity who has taken Patsey as his mistress. In a throng of gentlemanly villains, he’s the one that terrifies the most, maybe because he truly believes he is still somehow a good man. Although Northup’s first owner, Master Ford (creepy Benedict Cumberbatch) is just as disturbing somehow, a slave owner masquerading as a good, caring man but ultimately no better than the rest.
McQueen has done what American cinema couldn’t bear to and looked slavery right in the eye, making a film that doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t know, but puts it in a context that makes it seem much more terrible. There’s a quiet dignity here, in the direction, the screenplay and the cinematography, and the but most of all in the lead performance which will make Ejoifor a name to reckon with come awards season and beyond.