It’s a strange thing, that what seems like it must be Steve McQueen’s most personal project feels somehow less true to him than the films that preceded it. Perhaps it’s too early to be ascribing a style to McQueen’s work, but there’s an accessibility to 12 Years A Slave that almost seems designed to make it more palatable to the awards season crowd. And yet it dampens the resolute power with which McQueen commanded Hunger and Shame, like he’s on best behaviour, not to serve the story but to serve the season. This is not, then, the best film of the year. It’s not even Steve McQueen’s best film. But it might be his most likely to resonate.
In the end, we end up with some kind of compromise, in fact, because it’s in the moments when McQueen does discard his restraint that 12 Years A Slave is truly made. When our beleaguered hero is strung up for doing a good job, and McQueen’s shot holds on him, in his agony, for longer than we can bear, and them some. When Michael Fassbender’s demented plantation owner takes the whip to Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey with such ferocity that we feel it might break the screen. If the approach is somehow more traditional, the effect is no less demanding. Solomon Northup’s 12 years were brief compared to the lifetimes served by those born into bondage, but we can be in no doubt that the acts related had no right to exist for a second.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Fassbender, fine actors both, have never been better. Nyong’o, a newcomer, brings blood-curdling conviction to Patsey’s pain such that we mourn for her from first meeting. Solomon’s story doesn’t need fictionalising to be absolutely devastating, and McQueen tells it straight, trusting its account, and his actors, to make it resonant. Sean Bobbitt shoots the plantations of Louisiana like the imprisoned paradise they are; at once extraordinarily beautiful and utterly amoral.
The more I think about the film the less troubled I am by its safer conventions, though I daresay Django Unchained – defiantly Tarantino and yet a million miles away from a shot at Best Picture last year – taught me more about this darkest chapter in America’s history by being truer to its director’s sensibilities.
12 Years a Slave is in UK cinemas on January 10th.