Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a well-educated musician living in upstate New York with his wife and two children. Following an evening out with some acquaintances he wakes to finds himself alone and chained to the floor of a very dark room. Protesting his freedom only serves to infuriate his slavers and the unrelenting punishment dished out for his insolence is brutality personified. It is not long before he is trafficked to the Southern States and is sold to a decent slaver named Ford (Cumberbatch). He does not remain under his control for too long though as he is sold on to a dreadfully cruel man, Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who takes pride in his ability to break his slaves. It is Solomon’s struggle through his 10 years in the servitude of Epps that forms the backbone of this incredible story.
The central performance is something to behold as Ejiofor takes us inside the heart of a man who must do anything to survive. It is survival that frames this film as Northup is subjected to repetitive psychological and physical abuse that only serves to make him stronger, in his own mind. Ejiofor never feels like he is grandstanding, he merely delivers a beautiful performance that will take you inside one of the most brutal experiences imaginable. The story has its hero, but it simply would not be complete without a strong villain and Fassbender delivers the horrifically cruel Epps with incredible passion. Using the bible as reasoning for the treatment of his slaves while clearly defying its teachings as he engages in sexual activity with one particular slave girl sums up his character, he is unpredictable yet strangely entrancing.
Adding to these performances are the terrific Cumberbatch and Giammati. Giammati is a slave trader who engages in a no nonsense business so devoid of compassion you will be gobsmacked while Cumberbatch is perfect as the sympathetic slaver who simply does not do enough. Lupita Nyongo’o is also very strong as Patsey, a slave girl that must survive despite the attentions of Fassbender’s Epps.
It is not just the actors that deliver the goods though as McQueen successfully manages to make you feel like you are ever present in the Deep South with some beautiful shots of the Louisiana wetlands by dusk and dawn. It should be mentioned that the depiction of the cruelty inflicted upon the slaves at the hands of their owners is brutal in the extreme. One particular scene involving the whipping of a young slave girl is harrowing to say the least.
McQueen’s film is a sobering journey into the darkest period in American history and it approaches slavery with a sense of honesty that doesn’t search for a reaction. Quite simply one of the most captivating, brutal and heart-breaking films you are likely to see this year, 12 Years a Slave is an absolute must.