‘Movies of this calibre are an unusual beast. It seems almost callous to claim to have thoroughly enjoyed a film that centers around such devastating misery…’

12 Years a Slave Review
By Matt Allen

12 Years a Slave (2014)
Certificate: 15
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch,  Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson
Director(s): Steve McQueen
Screenwriter(s): John Ridley
Running Time: 131 mins

Steve McQueen (no not that one, he’s dead remember) reunites with his ‘Shame’ star, Michael Fassbender, in a true story of slavery and brutality in 19th Century America. The subject matter alone makes this one an obvious consideration for the upcoming Oscars. In fact, along with ‘Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom’ (read our review here) and ‘The Butler’, it would seem that Black Oppression will be the running theme of this year’s Academy Awards. Not too cheerful admittedly, but this is certainly a subject that has the potential for thunderous drama and shines a light on mankind’s capacity for cruelty as well as perseverance.

At the height of the slave trade, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) enjoys a life of freedom that is granted to few people of his race. That freedom is snatched from him when he is kidnapped by slavers and sold to the merciless Edwin Epps (Fassbender). It is then that Northup experiences first-hand the horrors and humiliations of slavery.

Movies of this calibre are an unusual beast. It seems almost callous to claim to have thoroughly enjoyed a film that centers around such devastating misery – particularly when it concerns the biggest atrocity in human history. However, McQueen’s exploration of the indomitable human spirit is immensely entertaining and masterfully maintains the balance between tragedy and feel-good survival tale .

As expected there are many moments throughout ’12 Years which will have you recoiling with a groan of empathy. It probably goes without saying that it involves many graphic scenes of bodily punishment. The ever present knowledge that conditions such as the ones represented in this film were, at the time, a grim reality lends a sense of horror to certain scenes that, at times, makes the film quite difficult to stomach. The use of Northop’s violin in the backing track often echoes the horror genre that much of the film could easily belong.

Ejiofor is outstanding as the infinitely determined Northup and plays superbly against Fassbender’s deranged, petty and deluded Epps. Benedict Cumberbatch (always a welcome face)  makes an appearance as the hypocritical but essentially good natured Ford and Brad Pitt pops his head in for a glorified cameo too. Paul Giamatti swaggers in as the monstrously indifferent slaver but, it is Paul Dano as the contemptuous Tibeats who wins the prize for the most detestable of a vile bunch.

However, it is often the women of 12 Years that inspire the most hatred. Sarah Paulson as the vindictive Mistress Epps is odious in her attacks on “nigress” Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who bears the brunt of both her master’s obscene affections as well as his savage rages. The disdain for this character only increases as she whispers poison into her husband’s ear and revels in the subsequent pain inflicted on those she considers mere property.

Steve McQueen’s latest triumph serves beyond its appearance as simply a costume drama and proves to be something much more intricate. Definitely one to watch out for over awards season; having already received 10 BAFTA nominations at the time of print. Expect to see an Oscar nod to Ejiofor for best actor as well as Best Director for McQueen and most probably Best Screenplay for John Ridley.

Maniac Rating - 4 Stars