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12 Years a Slave

10/10

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

Director: Steve McQueen

This year’s Best Actor Golden Globe winner was Matthew McConaughey for The Dallas Buyers' Club.

Since the Golden Globes are held to be harbingers of the year’s Oscar winners, then Chiwetel Ejiofor’s searing portrait of free married black New Yorker Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and then sold into slavery in the 1840s, which eminently deserves the Best Actor Academy Award, might sadly lose out at the Academy Awards.

On the credit side, much of which belongs to Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave rightly took the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama.

When carpenter and violinist Ejiofor is lured by two entertainers into going with them to Washington to make some extra money, he is kidnapped, wakes up in chains and is then sold (as runaway ‘Platt Hamilton from Georgia') into slavery in the South, first to (miscast) Benedict Cumberbatch, then Bryan Batt, both of whom seem like saints in comparison to cruel and deeply unpleasant Michael Fassbender who savours sadistically treating his male slaves and using the female slaves as convenient sex objects to be enjoyed and then discarded…

Director Steve McQueen is extraordinarily lucky in having John Ridey’s superb screenplay, based on Northup’s scarifying memoir of his appalling servitude, published in 1853, to work from. That, combined with Eijiofor’s towering contribution, a fine cast and atmospheric cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, ensures 12 Years a Slave emerges as far and away McQueen’s best work so far.

He flinches at nothing. He never pulls back from hard-to-watch hut clearly all too historically accurate sequences of slaves being hanged, whipped and variously mistreated which gives the story film compelling reality while making its anti-slavery proselytizing all too credible and potent.

Almost every performance is spot on. Ejiofor is mesmerising in his every scene, vividly summing up his character’s plight with a howled, “I don’t want to live. I want to survive,” and then proving his resolve in every scene.

Fassbender (fully dressed and with a beard and now unrecgnisable after his largely naked star role in McQueen’s porn-as-art movie Shame) gives an equally powerful performance, Paul Dano is impressive as a vicious overseer and Paul Giamatti is truly creepy as an oleaginous slave dealer, while producer Brad Pitt awards himself a passable (happily brief) cameo role as a carpenter with a grey-flecked Lincolnesque beard and a heart of gold.

While 12 Years a Slave is frequently uncomfortable to watch: masterly acting makes it mesmerizing.

(Sadly, when I went to see the film for a second time at a public screening for paying customers on the first day of its release, there were very few people in the audience. Shame).

Alan Frank

USA 2014. UK Distributor: Entertainment One. Colour by deluxe.
134 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 3, Violence/Horror 3, Drugs 0, Swearing 3.

Review date: 13 Jan 2014