I’m always a bit concerned at films of this nature in which we are given a glimpse of just how unpleasant mankind can be.
Stories about slavery and the Holocaust are by their nature tough movies to sit through and need to be treated sensitively but without insulting people’s intelligence or becoming mawkish.
Brit director Steve McQueen’s close examination of slavery pulls few punches when it comes to the brutality and sheer ignorance of those who dealt in human trafficking before the American Civil War.
We view this life through the eyes of Solomon Northup, a free black man happily living with his family in New York.
However, he is abducted one night and sold into slavery.
The rest of the movie is his struggle to survive in the face of brutal ‘owners’ and the determination to get back to his family.
What gives this story its added impetus is that it’s based on the real-life autobiography by Northup himself.
Another Brit, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the lead role with a performance that deserves all the trophies he will inevitably receive.
In a film full of terrific acting talent, Lupita Nyong’o shines as the slave Patsey, desperately attempting to find some humanity in an inhuman life.
At the other extreme, Michael Fassbender is all too convincing as the psychotic plantation owner Edwin Epps, convinced of his right to own slaves and, as such, treat them as he wishes.
Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt provide short cameo roles and our own Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Northup’s first slave owner.
However, my only criticism is that this part of the film with Cumberbatch is slightly muddled and seems a bit out of place.
What does slot in well, though, is McQueen’s superb direction, with brilliant scenic shots that provide some calm between the despair and brutality.
There’s one particular shot, an off-centre close-up of Northup’s face that goes on for several seconds but captures the slave’s desperation perfectly - a scene few directors would dare try.
So, overall, this is a film that needed to be made, and we can be grateful it was a marvellous combination of a terrific cast led by McQueen in top form.
Film details: 12 Years a Slave (15) 134mins
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o
Screening courtesy of Cineworld Crawley