One of the toasts of this year's London Film Festival, just as it was at Telluride and at Toronto, Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave - the British director's third feature following Hunger and Shame - has quickly established itself as a critic's darling and, for those who care about such things, an early awards favourite. It's not hard to see why: the movie, which might be described as Django Unchained's wiser, sober sibling, is a powerfully acted, skillfully made prestige picture. It's history with a very human face. It's not a genuinely provocative work about slavery – see Lars von Trier's underrated Manderlay for that – and it's not without some flaws, but it's an involving, sometimes intensely moving experience. If other (equally strong) films about slavery – from Steven Spielberg's Amistad to Jonathan Demme's Beloved – didn't end up getting their critical or their commercial due, 12 Years A Slave isn't going to suffer a similar fate.
The movie is adapted from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped, transported South and sold into slavery before the Civil War. Played with heart-rending grace and intelligence by a pitch-perfect Chiwetel Ejiofor (an actor who's having quite the great year following his acclaimed turn as Patrice Lumumba in A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic), Northup's narrative is distilled in the movie to focus primarily on his experiences under two owners: the kindly Ford (touchingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and the heinous, abusive Edwin Epps (a chilling Michael Fassbender, memorably completing a triumvirate of roles for McQueen).
As Northup, a skilled carpenter and fiddle-player, quietly plots an escape against seemingly impossible odds, his story is supplemented by the stories of other slaves. There's Eliza (Adepero Oduye) whose separation from her children turns her into a walking embodiment of grief, and there's Patsy (haunting Lupita Nyong'o), the most productive cotton-picker on Epps's plantation, who's the object of her master's sexual obsession and the simmering rage and disdain of her mistress (Sarah Paulson).
In telling Solomon's story, McQueen abandons the studiously art-conscious approach that characterised - and, in my opinion, marred - Hunger and Shame. Whether he's aiming for mainstream acceptance here or it's simply that the subject matter broke through his studied reserve, the director certainly opts for a more conventional shooting style that doesn't call such obvious attention to itself. In Shame one sensed McQueen's desire to make emotional contact with the audience but the film's rather shameless final tilt into moralising melodrama seemed a ham-fisted way of going about it. Here, though, he succeeds, and 12 Years A Slave is mostly open, tactile and emotionally astute. Any visual flourishes serve the story, and Sean Bobbit's cinematography gives a rich, deep-toned texture to both interior and exterior spaces without looking posed and over-deliberate in the way that McQueen's two previous films both tended to do.
Notwithstanding, the movie looks likely to spark some pretty intense debates about screen representations of suffering – especially in a shattering sequence in which Northup is forced by Epps to whip Patsy – while another daringly sustained interlude finds Northup hung from a tree for defying a crazed overseer (Paul Dano), the other slaves moving about in the background, pretending not to see his distress, until one brings him a few sips of water. The scene plays out in perfectly chilling quietness, but elsewhere the film benefits from a fine score by Hans Zimmer which moves compellingly from swelling old-school solemnity to cutting-edge discordance.
For all of its obvious strengths, 12 Years A Slave does have some shortcomings: some excesses, some surges into Spielbergian sentiment. The opening montage – fragmented images of Northup's slave experiences, some of which seem to relate to passages that later got edited out of the movie – is shaky, while a pan up from an image of our trapped hero screaming "Help me!" to a shot of the stolidly indifferent Capitol building is clunkily obvious. The early scenes of Northup on the ship being taken South also have a lurid, pulpy quality. And the coda is a maudlin misfire, especially since the opening scenes haven't done enough to really make Northup's family life vivid to us.
But if McQueen doesn't always find fresh angles on iconic images sometimes he does: one of the most powerful sequences in the picture begins in cliché – slaves singing a spiritual – before moving in for a tight close-up on Ejiofor's haunted, harried face as he adds his voice to the voices of the others, at first tentatively, finally assertively. An unforgettable gesture of solidarity, of the will to survive, it's one of many indelible moments in a rich, compelling movie.
12 Years a Slave opens in the UK on 10th January.