12 Years a Slave: a brilliant depiction of a terrible era in history. An absolute must-see.

Directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave is an epic drama inspired and based on the autobiography of the same name penned by Solomon Northup in 1853, in which he documents his 12 years after being kidnapped and held as a slave on the plantations in Louisiana.

Solomon Northup -- brilliantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofo -- is of African descent, has a loving family and is a talented musician and carpenter. He is lured to Washington under the false pretense of a short and lucrative music gig. Instead, he is drugged and wakes up in a basement in chains. He protests his status as a free man and receives a sadistic and savage beating that is absolutely barbaric.

He is then, alongside others who have similar tragic fates thrust upon them, transported by ship to Louisiana to be sold as a slave. It must be said that the depiction of the sale of human beings for slavery are shocking.

Northup -- who adopts the name Platt -- and another slave Eliza (played by Adepero Oduye) are transported to their new home on a plantation owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Northup makes the ill-fated acquaintance of John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who works as a carpenter on the plantation. He is the most hateful character, obnoxious, cruel to and self-serving the point of disgusting and Dano's performance must be commended as it is played with such conviction.

Chemistry

Steve McQueen also directed the 2008 film Hunger about the Irish hunger strike, in which Fassbender plays the iconic striker Bobby Sands. There is good history and professional chemistry between director and lead, which translates onto the screen.

One particular poignant scene sees Northup in a state of panic and bewilderment after he is forced to witness an appallingly horrific act of violence: he looks directly into the camera and holds the gaze of the viewer, to the effect that he engages the audience.

Such a shot is brave one by director McQueen, as it has the potential to be pretentious or self-indulgent. This is not the case and it is a very effective, powerful and significant moment in the film as his utter and confounding despair can be felt, as can the fact that his spirit is breaking, if not broken.

Very emotional

12 Years a Slave is a harrowing and genuine account of the atrocities and suffering that were inflicted upon people who were traded as slaves. It is horrifying and compelling in equal measure, and a deeply emotional film.

Arguably, this film does for slavery what Schindler’s List does for the Holocaust. It is disturbing and a devastatingly, brutally honest account of a man’s first-hand experience of one of the most sinister periods in humanity and for that reason it is very powerful educational film and therefore makes essential watching.

'12 Years a Slave' is in cinemas January 10, 2014.

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