Based on the true life experiences of a free black man forced into slavery, Steve McQueen’s latest work is a stunning achievement.
The kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from 1841 until 1853 form the spine of this harrowing tale.
Northup endures a hellish odyssey as he is chained and sailed down to New Orleans, where he encounters the brutal truths of the slave trade.
One owner is relatively benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) but his psychotic assistant (Paul Dano) forces a sale, meaning Northup eventually ends up picking cotton for the ruthless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Amongst the other important people he encounters are a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who renames him ‘Platt’; a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o) and a sympathetic Canadian who may be able to help him (Brad Pitt).
From the opening scenes until the closing credits, fans of McQueen – and I remain a huge admirer of Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – will recognise his mastery of the visual and audio language of cinema.
But here, he and his collaborators are painting on a bigger canvas and the result is a stunning historical drama which is likely to be the definitive film on the subject for many years to come.
The production design by Adam Stockhausen and use of the Louisiana landscape gives everything we see a remarkable authenticity.
This in turn is aided by the superb ensemble cast who chew up John Ridley’s dialogue with relish.
At the centre of all this is an incredible performance from Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.
We see him go through many episodes of mental and physical torment whilst maintaining his quiet dignity and hope.
It is a moving, subtle and rich performance which shows just what he is capable of with the right material.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbit continues his fruitful visual collaboration with McQueen and the beauty of the South is evoked alongside an air of dread and menace.
An agonising one-take sequence of a lynching is just one of many scenes that stay with you long after the film is over.
The icing on the cake is Hans Zimmer’s haunting score, which at times resembles his orchestral work on Inception (2010) and The Thin Red Line (1998).
In addition the use of spiritual songs as the slaves work in the fields, adds another human touch, hinting at the defiance which would later spawn the Civil War and ultimately the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
There has long been a curious reluctance for mainstream US cinema to examine the dark chapter of slavery.
Aside from the stylised world of Django Unchained (2012), realistic films haven’t really been made about the subject.
Even this project took a British director and several production companies (River Road, New Regency, Plan B and Film 4) to eventually bring it to the screen.
Perhaps the oddest aspect is how this particular story was dormant for so many years.
Although it was published around the same time as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book remained a relative obscurity.
Maybe it was a reluctance to confront the ghosts of the past, or perhaps it just wasn’t good box office.
Intolerance still lies beneath the surface of American life, even in the age of a black US president, but this film is a powerful reminder of the cruelties of racism and the endurance of hope.
12 Years a Slave screened at the London Film Festival on Fri 18th October, Sat 19th and Sun 20th
(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)