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12 Years a Slave (5 stars)

Steve McQueen's latest is a powerful, essential drama that eschews sentimentality

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12 Years a Slave

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York state, was drugged, imprisoned and sold into slavery. After his release in 1853 he wrote a memoir detailing the 12 harrowing years he spent incarcerated.

Steve McQueen’s (Hunger, Shame) film adaptation is a powerful portrait of this horrifying period of history. Masterfully directed, elegantly shot and with fantastic performances across the board, 12 Years a Slave has justifiably been accumulating critical praise since its premiere last August.

For his third feature McQueen has assembled some of the most interesting actors of our time: Paul Giamatti is the cold-blooded slave dealer who Northup meets when he’s offloaded in New Orleans; Paul Dano is the agitated, vindictive carpenter Tibeats; and Brad Pitt appears as one of the few likeable characters, thoughtful labourer Bass. Most astounding of all are the two lead roles: Michael Fassbender as the sweaty, drunken and explosive plantation owner Edwin Epps, a sadistic bully who embodies everything abhorrent about the era; and Chiwetel Ejiofor whose restrained performance in the lead role communicates Northup’s tragic circumstances through stony features, measured responses which break down in heart-wrenching moments of desperation.

Steve McQueen’s cinematography is subtly subversive. In the scenes of beatings his camera never cuts away, forcing the audience to look at the horrors which Northup went through for far longer than we’re used to.

If 12 Years a Slave sounds like a brutal viewing experience then you’d be right, but in eschewing sentimentality and striving for honesty in the storytelling it is also a powerful, essential drama.

General release from Fri 10 Jan.

12 YEARS A SLAVE - Official Trailer (HD)

12 Years a Slave

  • 5 stars
  • 2013
  • US
  • 133 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Steve McQueen
  • Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
  • UK release: 10 January 2014

In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. McQueen's third feature (and follow-up to Shame) features a stellar cast.

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