Steve McQueen, a British director of West Indian descent, came to the movies from a distinguished career as a visual artist - he won the Turner Prize in 1999, the year all the press attention was devoted to Tracey Emin's unmade bed.
His principal medium has been film (although Queen and Country in 2007 commemorated British soldiers who had died in Iraq by using their portraits on sheets of stamps) and his two feature films so far, Hunger and Shame, were intense, masterful, challenging and original works that didn't make a dollar.
Here, adapting the 1855 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, whose story it tells, McQueen is painting on a much larger canvas: his film is a hot favourite for the best-picture Oscar (it's already nailed the Golden Globe) and it tells its story with a profound and impressive reverence for historical accuracy (a Harvard history professor was a consultant). The antique, slightly syncopated style of the dialogue adds to the authenticity.
Put another way, it's a historical costume drama on a grand scale, but the film's problem is that McQueen's characteristic aesthetic sensibility - the studied and slightly abstract artistry that he deployed in the earlier films - keeps getting in the way. This makes for moments of sublime, even mesmerising, power, but they sit uncomfortably in the context of a film that is, by and large, conventional and at times almost banal.
Northup (Ejiofor), the son of a freed slave, is a prosperous farmer in upstate New York, who is taken in by confidence men and sold into slavery. Shipped to Louisiana and renamed Platt, he is sold to kindly plantation owner William Ford (Cumberbatch) who treasures him as "an exceptional n*****". But he is later onsold to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a sadistic alcoholic who believes the Bible authorises his abuses.
It is worth mentioning that the indignities visited on Solomon and his fellow slaves, particularly the diminutive Patsey (Nyong'o), are depicted with an unblinking explicitness that is often hard to take. McQueen would rightly counter any criticism with the observation that modern cinemagoers' discomfort is not to be compared with the slaves', but underlying that truth is an austere didacticism: it's too much to say that McQueen wants to rub our nose in the brutality, but amid all the sprays of blood from the flaying floggings, all the beatings and lynchings and rapes, the film has the feel of an R-rated history lesson. And the deliberately flat ending makes plain that McQueen never intended to assuage the horrors with either redemption or catharsis.
None of this is to deny that the film achieves many moments of mastery: an unbearably long scene in which Northup is left noosed and on tiptoe for hours as plantation life goes on around him leaves us feeling both drained and incandescent with rage. In another, which tips a hat to Terrence Malick, we watch the slave's face as he allows himself to contemplate the possibility of rescue.
Technically, the film certainly has it all: fantastic production values and superb performances. Its uncertainty of tone stops it from being a great film, but it is a very good one indeed.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Michael K. Williams, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o
Director: Steve McQueen
Running time: 134 mins
Rating: R16 (graphic violence, sexual violence)
Verdict: Brutal, brilliant and faintly didactic