Rates: * * * *
Pre civil war America was a country sharply divided. A cluster of wealthy, industrialised Yankee states in the North, where black Americans lived free, sharply contrasted with a sprawling collection of impoverished, agricultural Dixie states in the south.
This part of history is familiar to nearly everyone.
But what can be forgotten, with the end of the civil war nearly 150 years in the past, is just how stark the line between these two versions of the United States was. And the specifics of this division is what this coruscating drama, based on a real life memoir of the same name, serves to remind us of.
Solomon Northup (Chitwetel Ejiofor) lives a comfortable, middle class life in New York in the 1840's. He's a successful violinist, happily married with two kids and a modest house in the suburbs. Solomon is a cultured man, intelligent, well traveled and well spoken. As a black man, he is also a target.
When Solomon's wife goes away for a stretch of work, he takes a temporary job providing musical accompaniment for a travelling circus. At the end of a successful run, two of Solomon's fellow performers, white dandy's both, take him out for a lavish, celebratory meal. Solomon drinks too much, passes out and wakes up in a basement in chains, having apparently been given up and sold as a runaway slave by his dinner companions.
Imprisoned, beaten and humiliated, Solomon's old life is erased in an instant as he is smuggled by boat into the deep south and sold in a slave market in New Orleans. His protests are either ignored or met with violence. A fellow 'slave' warns him to keep his head down and not to let on that he is educated, lest he provoke further retribution. A different black kidnappee is stabbed to death when he tries to prevent a white overseer raping his wife.
The brutal suddenness of Solomon's kidnapping is utterly shocking. A metaphoric slap in the face, to match the literal ones the character faces on screen. In a moment he is transported from comfort, love and safety to an ugly, unforgiving place, where none of the rules he is familiar with apply.
Although Solomon is almost fortunate, when he lands in the south, in that he is initially sold to a relatively benign master, Mr Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford treats his slaves gently and allows Solomon to display some of his talents as an engineer and musician. But circumstance soon forces Solomon to the cotton plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a violent and unpredictable man.
Epps swaggers about his holdings like a drunken tyrant, frothing at the mouth and whipping and abusing his slaves at will. At times, his torments take a more surreal turn, as when he regularly forces them out of bed in the middle of the night to dance in his dining room. Epps also has a perverse fascination with one of his slave girls, Patsey, who attracts his lust and the worst of his sadism in equal measure.
Solomon and Epps do not get along and the master threatens to kill his slave several times, always for trivial reasons. Or, for no obvious reason at all. Solomon, and all of his fellow slaves, are depicted as never more than one moment, one mis-step, away from arbitrary execution. Their lives hang in the balance every hour of every day and they do all they can to keep their heads down, to make themselves as invisible as possible while carrying out their onerous tasks.
A truly impossible assignment.
British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has already forged a reputation for making uncompromising drama out of characters in desperate circumstances, and his latest movie is every bit as good as his previous efforts. His depiction of the slave era south is unforgettable; stunning, vivid, horrifying and even, at times, quite beautiful. There is a depth to his vision that makes this historical era feel like a real place and the scenarios the characters face are entirely convincing. An indicator of how well this story has been realised is the relentless tension that accumulates throughout; after two hours I had to pry myself out of my seat and rub my eyes, almost in a daze.
In the lead role, veteran actor Ejiofor gives the performance of a lifetime. His handsomely open face, gentle nature and innate decency immediately engender sympathy, which makes witnessing his ordeal all the more difficult. Similarly, when the robust character of the opening scenes gives way to the shell shocked survivor of the second half - as the horrors mount up, Ejiofor adopts an open mouthed look of abject terror that never alters - the breaking down of his personality is heartbreaking to watch. By the time he is freed, Solomon wears the look of a man who will never unsee the things he has seen, permanently altered by the unbearable burden of his memories.
The large, talented cast give Ejiofor strong backing. McQueen muse Fassbender is in top form as an unbalanced man with few redeeming qualities, while film newcomer Lupita Nyong'o makes an indelible impression as the tragic Patsey. The terrible treatment she endures from nearly everyone, and her begging Solomon to kill her as her only escape, are among the most difficult scenes to watch, in a very difficult movie.
There are times when 12 Years a Slave sacrifices subtlety for impact (the overuse of closeups in some scenes, Hans Zimmer's bludgeoning score in others) but mostly this is a slave movie unlike any we've seen before. While the viciousness of slave life has been depicted many times on screen, it is doubtful that any of these earlier efforts carries the same crushing weight as this.
This is, simply, a wrenching movie experience. Something that you survive. Something that you will think about for a long time afterwards. Like a holocaust movie, only set in America. While the film is not a happy one, it is undoubtedly a positive thing that it be seen and discussed and will, quite rightly, form part of the ongoing debate regarding race and racism, in America and around the world.