It will come as no surprise that Steve McQueen's real-life chronicle of a free man sold into slavery is a remarkable, unflinching, breathlessly affecting drama, the kind of film that leaves you winded. What's surprising is how few of McQueen's fingerprints are visible on 12 Years a Slave. The director's previous films have centred on a laser-focused portrait of a single character – Hunger's ardent IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, and Shame's self-punishing sex addict Brandon – and the uncomfortable intimacy of these portrayals is a McQueen staple.
The 1840s-set story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has his freedom, his family and even his name stripped from him in a single fateful evening, seems to offer the opportunity for another such rigorous character study. But this is overall a much broader, more sweeping and less inward-looking film than we might expect from McQueen, trading in distinctiveness for a more conventional kind of majesty.
There is, however, nothing conventional about Ejiofor's extraordinary lead performance, which makes every step of his ordeal feel painfully immediate. After being made a seemingly solid business offer he can't refuse, Solomon awakens in chains. The unthinkable horror of this moment is straightforwardly, bluntly drawn, and leads into the first of many scenes of stomach-churning brutality.
Each lashing, hanging and beating is genuinely gruelling to watch; in one late whipping sequence, McQueen's averted camera pans around to take in the victim's injuries, despite the audience's silent pleas for it to remain averted. It's the noise of the whip cracking, amplified unbearably, that haunts the most – sound design is one of many Oscar categories in which the film will be a frontrunner.
McQueen and scriptwriter John Ridley both appear disinclined to draw attention away from the story's innate power, and understandably so. There are extended one-shots here, but none designed with the same ostentatious flair as Shame's 'New York, New York' or unbroken jogging - the Louisiana plantations where Solomon spends his 12 years are beautifully but unremarkably rendered.
Similarly, Ridley forgoes much exploration of Solomon's psychological state in favour of a broader cast of intriguing supporting characters: the owners he's passed between, and the fellow slaves he encounters. Benedict Cumberbatch does nuanced work as his largely sympathetic first owner William Ford, a preacher who respects Solomon's talents as a musician and engineer. Following an altercation with a sadistic carpenter (Paul Dano), he is passed on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a notoriously cruel plantation owner for whom slaves are nothing more than property.
Somewhat ironically, the passage of time in 12 Years a Slave isn't felt as keenly as it might be; it's not clear at any point how much time has elapsed since Solomon's initial capture. What does resonate throughout is the power of creative expression as catharsis - one of the film's few merciful moments comes when Ford presents Solomon with a violin, another when Solomon succeeds in writing his first letter in years.
Despite the overall lack of McQueen's stamp, the film's physically unflinching treatment of its subject matter is where he does make himself felt. This is a tremendously powerful drama that simultaneously highlights the human capacity for cruelty and for resilience, bolstered by an extraordinary, wrenching performance from Ejiofor.