When talking about Steve McQueen films, one phrase never used is 'an easy watch'. One phrase used pretty often is 'really excellent'. 12 Years A Slave is no exception.
Superlatives have been heaped on this outstanding film by people far more eloquent than me already - I like to be fashionable late to the party - so I'll keep it brief. This is an exceptional film; one that merits repeat viewings to fully appreciate its quality but one for which repeat viewings really would be difficult.
I'm sure you know the (true) story by now: Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He's passed around and abused by a variety of owners, some relatively benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford) some horrific (Michael Fassbender's Epps), until an encounter with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt's Bass) changes his fate and sees him back to freedom and his family.
Just from that paragraph the strength of the story is clear. And McQueen tells it without an iota of sentimentality. There are some truly brutal (and long) scenes in this film - the overseer who 'saves' Solomon from a hanging only to continue to leave him dangling there standing on tip toe and on the brink of choking for hours as normal life continues in the background and the brutal whipping of Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey spring to mind - which are terrifically hard to watch. There are also some beautifully shot, silent, lengthy closeups of Solomon's face which are equally compelling. The use of sound and music throughout is also incredibly clever, especially when music and dialogue conflicts as in the scenes which underscore Cumberbatch's religious services with slave songs.
The quality of the acting on display here is also outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor is magnetic as Solomon. This is a career making performance - and thoroughly deserves an Oscar win, even more than Matthew McConaughey who I awarded it to last week! - most amazing for me because of what Ejiofor is able to say when he doesn't have any lines. Those long lingering close ups that are so effective can only claim to be so because of the emotion he is able to convey through his eyes. You can't stop watching him, as much as you might want to in some places.
He is backed up by an extremely weighty supporting cast on uniformly excellent form. Of particular note as Lupita Nyong'o who is heartbreakingly perfect as the desperate Patsey (I can't conceive of the idea that there's been a better supporting actress performance this year, I really can't) and Michael Fassbender at his frightening and unhinged best as the evil Epps. Brad Pitt (who is aging so damn well, by the way) and Paul Giamatti are also on excellent form in their small but important roles. Benedict Cumberbatch is good too, but his patchy attempt at a southern drawl distracted me a bit.
Trying to think of criticisms, I found the film a touch too long but I think that's due to how harrowing it is - an hour and a half in and I just wanted to be at home, curled up in the fetal position rocking back and forth with a cup of tea! - and the fact I went on a Monday night. As mentioned above, a rookie error. As he's one of my favourite actors, I also would've liked to have seen a bigger part for Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire's Chalky) who was excellent in his tiny but important cameo.
Overall 12 Years A Slave is by some margin the best film I've seen in a long time and deserves to win many, many awards. But do I want to see it again anytime soon? Probably not.