"Your story is amazing, and in no good way"
- Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt)
It really pisses me off when a truly brilliant film comes out at the beginning of the year, because I like to watch my list of favourites shift and rearrange as the year goes on and I watch and rewatch more movies. 2014, however, may as well give up and go home now. If another film comes along in the next twelve months that earns the right to sit above that still of 12 Years A Slave over on the left, I will eat all a y'all's hats.
I saw Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave at last year's London Film Festival, and it destroyed me. I was with friends, but when I left the cinema I couldn't speak to any of them. I headed straight for the station and went home. What was I going to say? The only word I could form was an exhausted "fuck", and standing around in Leicester Square with puffy eyes saying "fuck" over and over isn't cool. I felt like a light somewhere inside me had been extinguished, never to be relit. It was worse than when Timothy Dalton said he wasn't going to do any more Bond films.
The true story of a wealthy and respected man kidnapped and sold into slavery in mid-19th century Washington DC, 12 Years A Slave follows Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) incredible journey as he's passed around from one owner to another. Some are kind to him (apart from the whole owning-him-as-a-slave thing), some are a bit shitty, and some are Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is... well, he's... fuck.
The film is a harrowing and exruciating experience - one scene, shot in a long take that you'll beg to cut away to something, anything, else, is near-unbearable - but it's buoyed by hope and the kindness that exists in a world of horror. It's also an astonishing tale of tenacity and endurance: "I don't want to survive, I want to live", says Solomon early on in his ordeal. Some time later, that becomes a broken "I survive". But the will to live again burns in Ejiofor's eyes as fiercely as the madness in Fassbender's.
The anguish you feel for Solomon builds slowly, creeping up insidiously, and this is McQueen's genius. There are moments of awfulness, for sure, but you don't really notice the weight of woe bearing down on you until you suddenly realise you're crushed by it, and by then it's too late. McQueen has stealth-devastated you. Fuck.