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Captivating drama of cruelty

12 Years A Slave (15)

cruel fate: Chiwetel Eliofor stars as the man kidnapped and sent  into slavery.
cruel fate: Chiwetel Eliofor stars as the man kidnapped and sent into slavery.

12 Years A Slave (15)

Dir: Steve McQueen

With: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt

Runtime: 134 minutes

GREAT expectations ensued when it was announced that Steve McQueen, the British director of Hunger and Shame, was adapting Solomon Northup's memoir of a free man kidnapped into slavery in 19th century America.

McQueen has duly delivered a drama that is as magnificently enraged as it is quietly, devastatingly, moving. Given its UK premiere at the London Film Festival last October, it was no surprise to find the picture nominated for 10 Baftas yesterday.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, a family man and musician living in New York in 1841. Hired for a job in Washington, he is drugged and sent to the south. "If you want to survive," he is told, "do and say as little as possible".

So begins Northup's odyssey through innumerable circles of hell, most of them presided over by plantation owner Edwin Epps and his equally sadistic wife (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson).

McQueen is unflinching in his depiction of slavery and the systematic way it tried to rob its victims of all dignity. As such, 12 Years is often a difficult watch. But what shines through the bleakness is an inextinguishable sense of the human spirit and how it survives despite the cruelties visited on it.

Fassbender, a McQueen regular by now, commands the screen as the loathsome Epps, and there are places in the cast for Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt, also a producer of the film. The success of the picture, though, rests squarely on the shoulders of Ejiofor, and what an unforgettable performance he turns in as a man stripped to his physical and mental core.

Cinema has been no stranger to attempting to portray slavery, often with questionable results. Whatever efforts are made in future, it is hard to imagine anyone bettering McQueen's towering indictment.

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