(Steve McQueen, 2013)
McQueen's first two features - the exceptional Hunger and Shame - both still had the scent of the gallery lingering around them. The director's past as an artist, responsible for installations, was evident in the precision and control and self-consciousness of the effects he brought to bear on his work in cinema. That was no bad thing when applied with his intelligence and sensitivity.
12 Years a Slave is different, however. Adapted by John Ridley from the memoir of Solomon Northrup, it is a raw, intimate story of suffering, torture and survival. And McQueen's approach is leavened somewhat, perhaps, by his own desire to transmit this story beyond the arthouse sector, which embraced his first work, and right into multiplexes.
So his style is toned down somewhat. Though still recognisably a Steve McQueen film, there are fewer extended takes, fewer ostentatiously frozen breathtaking compositions. The filmmaking is, generally speaking, more conventional.
But that is enough - this is a great story, brilliantly told.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in Saratoga, New York in the 1840s. He works as a musician and lives happily with his wife and two children in a nice house. He is respected in the local community, hos race seemingly not an issue in the liberal North. And then he is tricked by two men who offer him work, and awakens after a night of heavy drinking in Washington DC to find himself chained and imprisoned. He has been sold into slavery, and after being savagely beaten and humiliated, he is transported downriver to New Orleans, where he is sold to a plantation owner for $1000. Over the years he encounters vicious overseers (Paul Dano), benevolent masters (Benedict Cumberbatch) before winding up in the possession of Epps (Michael Fassbinder). Epps is a terrifying cotton plantation owner, sexually obsessed with his slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) and driven to "break" difficult slaves like Solomon, whose slave name is "Platt". His wife (Sarah Poulson) is just as dangerous in her quiet way, and Solomon endures years of fear and terror on the plantation.
This story plays out like a horror movie in certain passages, so grimly violent and frightening it is. There are scenes of shocking cruelty and utter degradation, and yet the hardest moments to watch are those which depict yet another layer of Solomon's identity and hope fall away at a fresh horror. The moral force of McQueen and Ridley's vision compensate for how brutal much of this material is, however. The subject matter earns the violence. The subject matter demands it.
It also demands some recognition of the complexity of the issue, even as it's moral position stands obvious and unquestionable. That is there in the character played by Alfre Woodard, regarded as the Mistress of a nearby plantation, though really a slave, and in the arguments solomon has with other slaves on various issues.
As Solomon, Ejiofor is lovely; soulful eyes always burning bright with a lust to survive, with his own belief in who he is cutting through. The rest of the cast are as good, with Fassbender particularly fearsome as Epps, Poulson a haunted presence as his wife, while Nyong'o is stunning as Patsey.
This being a Steve McQueen film, it looks beautiful (fine Sean Bobbitt cinematography) and Hans Zimmer's unusual score - much of it drowned in industrial noises - is also impressive. But it is McQueen who inserts much of what makes 12 Years a Slave special into the film, and he who should ultimately take all the plaudits.