Film Review: McQueen’s new take on deprivation delivers on the hype

I had high expectations for this. Yes, it’s been nominated for a raft of major awards, but more importantly, Steve McQueen is one of the most interesting voices to emerge from the UK in the last two decades.

His earlier films, Hunger and Shame, are small-scale masterpieces. With this third film, McQueen has raised the stakes in every conceivable way.

This is a large, meticulously detailed period film with potentially combustible subject matter and a very fashionable cast of established names – if he were to fail spectacularly on his third outing, this would be the way to do it.  

It is the mid-19th century. Soloman Northup is a happy, well-educated, wealthy, smartly dressed and widely respected New Yorker. He is also black.

When his wife leaves town for some days, two travelling circus agents tempt him with the promise of adventure and a small fortune in return for his considerable skill with the violin. On their arrival in Washington, they celebrate their profitable venture with a lavish meal and copious amounts of wine. 

When Soloman wakes the next day, stripped of all his belongings and lying on the floor of a cold stone cell, he realises with horror how effectively he has been duped. Strangers strip him of his clothes, viciously flay him and inform him that his name is to be James Platt from that day forth. 

Forced upon a ship bound for the southern states, he discovers that he is to be sold as a slave. After witnessing the severe punishment, executions and suicides of those around him, Soloman quickly quietens his protests. What then follows is the true life account of one man’s journey into the dark heart of our Western culture’s most shameful legacy. 

Ejiofor’s expressive, dignified face fills almost every frame and provides a compelling sun for the film’s other elements to orbit. Just as well then, that other cast members can compete: from tiny but unforgettable cameos – Boardwalk Empire’s Michael K Williams makes a memorable appearance as a ship slave – to the towering menace that McQueen regular Michael Fassbender brings to his force-of-nature portrayal of plantation owner Edwin Epps. 

However, among these, no star shines brighter than relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. Her performance as prized cotton-picker Patsy is allowed to, temporarily, eclipse even Ejiofor’s as it is through her that we come to understand the full cruelty and injustice of the slave trade. 

She demonstrates that within this environment, doing everything right, gaining favour with your masters and working as hard as is physically possible will ultimately do you little favours and, if anything, severely worsen your situation.

McQueen’s films have all been, in albeit wildly differing ways, about some form of slavery, if deprivation of the means to determine your own destiny constitutes slavery. Each film is preoccupied with notions of freedom and imprisonment. Hunger portrays subjugation perpetrated by the state; Shame, in more complex ways, depicts a form of slavery to the self:  sexual addiction as a proverbial prison. 

The triumph of that film was to take an intangible, internalised struggle and to communicate it so that any viewer might understand it, if not identify with it. In 12 years, the slavery is quite literal – but what this more conventional film lacks in narrative innovation, it makes up for in stripped-bare and screaming emotions. 

The experience of seeing this is to be wrung dry as it properly pays tribute to countless individuals who endured these unspeakable horrors (and much worse). 12 years a Slave did not surpass my expectations. It did, however, fully meet them – and they were set unreasonably high.