REVIEW: Any qualms one might have that we need another slavery movie like we need more Holocaust tales are swiftly put to rest as the true-life horror story of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into a life of torture, swiftly unfolds.
We first meet him cutting sugar cane in stifling heat and sleeping top-to-toe in crowded quarters, before flashing back to 1841 where Solomon is living a comfortable middle-class life with his wife and children. Amidst energetic, old-style dialogue and exquisite costuming, one fateful night his fortunes change very much for the worse.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has been building a strong career for years, known to many for Children of Men, and no doubt others as Keira Knightley's poor husband in Love, Actually.
Rightly praised for his performance here, Ejiofor is excellent in his portrayal of a righteous man who refuses to "confess" to being an uneducated man from the south, yet battles with the necessity to demean himself in order to stay alive ["I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune," he tells a distraught woman for whom the prospect of death offers release].
You know something is wrong with the world when a callow Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) wields power over the strapping Ejiofor, and indeed the sheer injustice and unwavering brutality makes this a frequently difficult watch.
British director Steve McQueen is known for tackling the hard stuff - his breakout film, Hunger, told the story of an IRA prisoner on hunger strike, while his follow-up, Shame, dwelt on a New York yuppie's sex addiction.
Both roles were played by McQueen's regular leading man, Michael Fassbender, and despite top-class efforts from the whole cast of Slave, the charismatic Irishman wipes the floor with everyone else on screen as the malevolent, lascivious, alcoholic land-owner whose inherent shame and hunger for power make him a frightening adversary of the powerless.
Despite everything we think we already know, the violence meted out upon human spirit and vulnerable flesh is gut-wrenching. Given his predilection for long takes and intense scenes, McQueen doesn't flinch as he keeps the camera on the subjects so we are given no respite throughout floggings and rapes.
It's a showcase of his direction, and the actors' enormous resilience (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is truly extraordinary in her screen debut as Patsey), as many scenes play out continuously like theatre, eschewing reaction shots which may have given the actors a break but would have certainly broken the tension.
At the same time, there are glorious moments where a cacophony of sound and picture lifts your spirits momentarily out of the gloom; then immensely powerful scenes where silence and inaction speak volumes.
Coming to New Zealand fresh from the Golden Globes' stage where it took out the gong for Best Picture (Drama), this slavery biopic is now said to be a shoe-in for the Oscar in March.
It's certainly meaty fare in the manner of Amistad (and considerably more gruelling than Amazing Grace). Let's see if it's just what the Academy ordered.
12 Years a Slave (R16) 134 mins
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