12 Years a Slave. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson; directed by Steve McQueen
In 1841, Solomon Northup lives a good, quiet life. He plays the violin, and takes care of his family.
However, his life takes a sharp turn when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Being a free black man in North America in the 19th century affords Solomon no kind of protection at all.
He's sold to a plantation in the deep South, and from then on, Solomon's life becomes entirely about survival.
12 Years a Slave pulls absolutely no punches, but Steve McQueen has such a sure touch as a director that the absolute tragedy of the story never tips over into melodrama.
Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the story of Solomon on his shoulders with quiet dignity and also conveys Solomon's deep despair at his seemingly impossible situation.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender round out an impressive supporting cast - which includes Brad Pitt in a small but pivotal role - as the respective plantation owners Solomon is sold to.
Apart from Ejiofor himself, the standout performance in 12 Years is Lupita Nyong'o as plantation slave Patsy.
Nyong'o is magnetic and compelling on screen, her tragedy as the slave that comes in for unwanted attention from the plantation owner (Fassbender), her heartbreaking plea to Solomon to help her end her life - every moment Nyong'o is on screen conveys a deep, unspoken sadness.
12 Years a Slave is far from an easy watch, and McQueen pulls no punches with Solomon's story, but he's gifted enough as a director to let the actors and the story speak for themselves. He doesn't need to telegraph the tragedy and absolute unfairness of Solomon's situation - or Patsy's, or any of the other slaves - he just presents it and lets the story and the incredibly talented cast take care of the rest.
Ejiofor is on screen for most of the production, and he pulls Solomon's story together so very well that there are genuinely breathtaking moments.
Solomon is struggling for much of the movie with an impossible, unjust situation, and he seems on the verge of a breakdown for most of it, but Ejiofor never gives in to the obvious, and his moments of absolute despair are as subtle as they are heartbreaking.
12 Years a Slave is pretty much the polar opposite of escapist film fare - it feels like an important film, a very important film that should be shown as much as possible and gain a very wide audience.
I had never heard of Solomon Northup before the buzz began for 12 Years and I'm glad that McQueen and co took on Northup's book on his experiences as a slave so that his story could be told.
There are just some stories - no matter how old they are - that need to be told and told again if necessary, and 12 Years a Slave is one of them.
It's not an easy movie to watch - there are a couple of scenes, including a deeply sad and terrifying whipping scene - that make you want to look away, just for a moment to catch your breath, but you can't.
Compelling, important and tragic, 12 Years a Slave is an absolute must-see.
- The Southland Times