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’12 Years a Slave’ (Steve McQueen, 2013)

12 Years a Slave is the most impactful depiction of slavery I’ve seen on screen, a snapshot of a period served by a singular story dragged through two hours by a filmmaker with drive and fiery purpose. Through the complicity of the good to the sadism of the bad, Steve McQueen’s film co-opts the visual language of the great American epics to tell a story that feels striking, relevant and pressingly important 150-years after its passing.

This is the third feature from Turner prizewinner McQueen (though we won’t hold that dreaded award against him). I admired his first two, Hunger & Shame, more for the sharp photography and great performances than any sort of deep individual connection. If I’ve accused McQueen of a faintly impersonal air in the past, I apologise now for misreading his character; 12 Years displays the heart of a filmmaker in union, heart and soul, with his work.

Screenwriter John Ridley deserves great credit for delivering a script with such shape to its storytelling, long but never indulgent, rich but never excessive. It’s the sort of drama where a multitude of extremely well known actors are willing to take bit-roles simply to be a small part of an obviously important project. They fill out the corners as McQueen contrasts the beauty of the Southern landscapes with Northup’s descent into hell. Too few prestige pictures can truly be considered worthy of the tag, but 12 Years is no standard awards pap or winter cooler, but a brawny, visceral and vital contribution to modern cinema, essential viewing for British audiences heading to the multiplex this January and a well-deserved front-runner as we journey into Oscar season.

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