Adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same name, 12 Years A Slave recounts his harrowing true story as a free man who is abducted and sold into slavery. He leads a pleasant life in New York with his family and it promises to be even better when he’s offered a lucrative job as a musician, but when Solomon wakes up in chains, his dark journey begins and Steve McQueen’s film never stops for breath.
Chiwetel Ejiofor emerges from a decade of supporting roles to lead a film with a towering performance as Solomon Northup. Rendered almost voiceless by his character’s position as a slave, the British actor relies on facial expressions alone for the majority of the film and McQueen’s lingering extreme close ups, though exhaustive, capture his powerful emotional range. It’s a profound performance of subtlety and nuance, but it’s the way in which Ejiofor maintains a dignified charm throughout his character’s terrible situation that makes Solomon’s great adversity so affecting.
McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, as the sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who delivers a devastating performance as a young slave girl Patsey, lead a fine ensemble cast to support Ejiofor. While a lack of ambiguity reduces some of their characters, particularly the antagonists, to caricature they each, aside from Benedict Cumberbatch’s unconvincing southern drawl and Brad Pitt’s bizarre resurrection of Lieutenant Aldo Raine, dominate their comparatively limited screentime to share Ejiofor’s limelight.
Sadly, McQueen’s detached directing style robs the film of a portion of its potency. It presents the harshness of slavery with shocking authenticity, but an overindulgence in close ups, rhythm-less editing and a lack of dramatic tension ensures this draining experience plays out as a plodding two hours of increasing brutality with no relief.
12 Years A Slave is a significant piece of cinema as a historical biopic that offers such a rare, fearless and clinical examination of some of America’s darkest days, but as a piece of cinematic storytelling it’s far from the classic many have suggested, more a workmanlike production of a truly harrowing tale.