Steve McQueen's pre-American civil war film based on Solomon Northup and his 1853 memoir by the same name is shocking, but not scarring. Critics are moved by the honest narrative and the stellar performances.
A cathartic experience of sorts, 12 Years A Slave achieves something few other films do. It makes you uncomfortable.
"This is not a sprawling Spielbergian tearjerker, but neither is it an aloof, artsy affair. McQueen pitches his tent somewhere between the two camps: whenever Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score threatens to drag the film into three-hankie territory, the clinical photography and hard, unflashy performances bring it right back. It’s a film made for a mass audience, but it doesn’t want them to feel comfortable for a second," writes Tom Huddleston in Time Out.
12 Years also stands out for bringing a certain kind of newness in narration.
As Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian, "We get a superbly composed, continued shot of Solomon's wondering face after a fateful conversation with a sympathetic carpenter Bass, played by Brad Pitt, and we see hope and fear and loss register with him, along with a new realisation of all that he has endured. It is a bravura performance from Ejiofor and McQueen. But there isn't the same icy, eerie effect; the sense of steely, refrigerated technique isn't as prominent. There is a new passion and moral force in the film; a new tragic grandeur."
"12 Years a Slave wouldn't be as effective if it weren't perfectly cast, performed with searing honesty, smoothly written (by John Ridley, from Northup's memoir) and unflinchingly filmed; you'll want to look away, particularly during a sequence involving Patsey near the end, but you won't. It’s a chapter in American history that's seen too little screen time, and it will haunt you long afterward," notes Moira Macdonald in Seattle Times.
Dana Stevens shares why the film will haunt you in Slate.com.
"By the time you get to the soul-rending last scene of 12 Years a Slave, when a stunned Solomon at last comes home to his wife and now-grown children after more than a decade of hard labor and isolation, so damaged by the years he’s lost he seems scarcely able to remember what bodily autonomy feels like. It’s the unhappiest happy ending I’ve ever seen, a moment that makes you weep not just for this one man who found his way back to freedom, but for all those men and women who never knew it in the first place."
As for the performances, not a single character has been left out by the critics. Every important member in the cast has received a round of applause.
"There's (Chiwetel) Ejiofor, who is magnificent, playing a man trying to maintain his dignity while hiding his intelligence. His face is the audience's locus of meaning - the way he looks at the monsters surrounding him is the way we feel. There he stands, in an upside-down world in which villains go unpunished. He has friends who disappear - he never knows what became of them, and so we never know - their torment lost in the darkness of time, along with those of millions," writes Mick LaSalle in SF Gate.
Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent is impressed with Fassbender's violent and ruthless portrayal of Epps.
"Epps is sadistic in the extreme. It’s a measure of Fassbender’s skill as an actor that he is at least able to hint at the insecurities in a character who has nothing remotely sympathetic about him."
McQueen's female characters are just as interesting, he says.
"The female protagonists here have a complexity that the men often lack. As played by Nyong'o, Patsey is defiant and enigmatic. Paulson’s Mistress Epps is an intensely jealous, repressed and insecure figure. McQueen may not give us much sense of the inner lives of the slave owners or of how they justify their own behaviour to themselves but he makes it clear that they are a wretchedly unhappy bunch."
With a flawless rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, 12 Years A Slave is most undoubtedly a promising film. Watch if you can stomach violence, we'd suggest.