"“McQueen masterfully depicts the devastation of such undignified brutality, with a succinct and yet so powerful subtlety...”"

When British auteur Steve McQueen burst onto the scene in 2008 with Hunger, it was hard to envisage where he could go from there; how he could better his fine, debut effort, and enlarge suitably to match his evident ambition. However Shame managed to do just that, being grander in size and yet proving to be a more accomplished feature film. The challenge in doing that again with his third production 12 Years a Slave seemed even more impossible a task – but somehow the immensely talented filmmaker has managed to up the stakes, staying true to his distinct ingenuity, yet taking this move forward in his stride, with arguably his finest picture yet.  

Beginning in 1841, we follow Solomon Northup, played with a devastating conviction by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free black man living with his wife and two adoring children in upstate New York. However when lured to Washington D.C. with promise of a new job, he is subsequently kidnapped and sold into slavery. Though coming from a relatively privileged background, that soon counts for nothing at all, as he is treated with so much inhumanity and cruelty as he moves between masters, eventually winding up in the Depp South, on the unforgiving ranch run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) – where he suffers brutal abuse. However when he meets Canadian abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) his luck begins to change.

If 12 Years a Slave was to be the last ever film made about slavery, it would by no means be a bad thing – because McQueen, alongside writer John Ridley, has documented this era so formidably and substantially, with the monstrosities of the human race portrayed as poignantly as can be. McQueen masterfully depicts the devastation of such undignified brutality, with a succinct and yet so powerful subtlety. Not since Billie Holiday penned Strange Fruit has the unrelenting cruelty to African Americans been so eloquently expressed in an art form. Many films may claim to have one or two uncomfortable scenes that you struggle to witness – but 12 Years a Slave has those in abundance, making for a harrowing and uncompromising watch, where you can't help but look away. Though that doesn't make much of a difference, as you can hear every last lash of the whip, as it pounds down against bare flesh. A sound that will haunt you hours after the credits roll.

There is no retribution within this title either, as regardless of any good luck that may arise, you can forget conciliation, as what Northup has to endure makes for a film that guarantees to be devoid of any potential happy ending. The only glimmer of hope we can cling on to during this disturbing piece is the title. Given it's called 12 Years a Slave, it brings some sort of conclusion to anticipate.  Nonetheless, the cruelty and destruction feels infinite at times, despite the evident time frame we have to work with. Meanwhile, Ejiofor turns in a stunning lead performance, and one that should earn him an Academy Award as he plays the role with such sincerity and humility, while he's simply heartbreaking to watch. There isn't a bad performance in the pack, as all the smaller roles are taken up by some of Hollywood's finest talent – with the likes of Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano also offering supporting roles, while a special mention must be reserved for the emotionally shattering performance by Lupita Nyong'o, playing the slave Patsey.

There isn't a wasted second in this masterpiece, as every single moment is essential to making this such an astonishing piece of cinema. If McQueen continues on in this rich vein of form, he could well look back over a career that saw him become known as one of the finest filmmakers to have ever lived. Each of his films are so different to the next and yet are bound by one continuing thread: sheer quality. However when this film comes to an end, you may want to turn your attentions to another director, as Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained would work ideally as a double bill and antidote, as whatever suffering you endure during 12 Years a Slave can be swiftly softened, as you indulge in a tale of revenge and remorse to help ease the pain.