The new film from increasingly impressive director Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave follows a free man's heartbreaking story as he is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, whose personal account of what happened to him the movie was based on, and we sit there and chew on our popcorn guiltily as he is beaten, hanged, given cruel, impossible tasks and whipped over and over again. It's certainly a tough watch but how could it not be? That said, the idea that a man everyone tried desperately to rid of his humanity still managed to keep that and his dignity intact even after 12 years of hell is a quietly promising thought. After being beaten, dragged to New Orleans and given a random name, Paul Giamatti's soulless slave trader sells him to Benedict Cumberbatch's plantation owner. The latter immediately realises Northup's potential and even offers him a violin but, when things turn really sour as Paul Dano's petty, jealous worker decides to start an argument with Northup and tries to force him to take a beating, you realise how alone Northup truly is. He is promptly hanged for going against Dano's orders, no matter how unfair those were, and, with only his toes touching the ground, he is made to spend an entire day hanging, with everyone around him going back to work casually, until Cumberbatch finally shows up and helps him down. It's a harrowing scene which lasts for a while but it's one of the most powerful images in McQueen's film. The fact that Cumberbatch's plantation owner doesn't want to hear about Northup being a free man unjustly dragged into this life and can only sell him to someone else is discouraging to say the least, especially when you thought he was one of the good guys.
Northup is therefore sold to Michael Fassbender's lunatic plantation owner and the nightmare continues as this dude is most definitely not on Northup's side or the side of any slave. His technique to produce more cotton being to line up everyone at the end of each day, round up everything they picked, and whip anyone with a crazy amount of lashes who under-performed according to him. The white workers, of course, getting preferential treatment. That's when we meet Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, a young slave girl whom the owner has taken a liking to despite his wife living in the same house. Patsey is soon stuck in the middle with both the owner obsessing over her and eventually raping her and his wife physically hurting her by scratching her face and throwing objects at her. Her situation gets so desperate that she even asks Northup to help her commit suicide and a scene in which the latter is forced to whip her as hard as he can is particularly hard to watch. McQueen's detailing of the cruelty at hand being appropriately graphic and harsh. Brad Pitt appears near the end to offer some sort of hope for Northup specifically and the film ends on a happier yet still very much bittersweet note when you put that story into perspective and realise that Northup's tale ended up much better than most other slaves' who never had that free man status to fall back on. 12 Years A Slave is a tough film but a powerful one: beautifully shot, impressively acted all around and boasting some of the most stand-out images in any release from last year, it definitely deserves all these Oscar nominations and if Nyong'o doesn't win the Best Supporting Actress gong, there's something seriously wrong with the Academy.
Overall, while 12 Years A Slave can, at times, feel like a play in that you have some very intimate, passionate scenes, that only gives Ejiofor and others the opportunity to bring in some strong, heartfelt emotions to their characters and to the film. Steve McQueen once again showing he's one of the best new directors to look out for.
(give the popcorn and the large Diet Coke a miss, though)