Faced with the daunting task of imbuing a remote dilemma with realism, Ejiofor matches McQueen's filmmaking skill. The actor's expression alone conveys a wholly unique set of emotions, blending exasperation, fear and rage that intensifies with each scene. McQueen gives his talent the same room to breathe that he does the story, peppering the movie with patient long takes that often build into exceptional set pieces: In one near death encounter, Northup stands on his tip toes with a noose around his neck, gazing and gasping at the surrounding plantation while the minutes crawl by. Later, at a funeral for a fallen slave, his fellowmen deliver a moving rendition of the cotton field staple "Roll, Jordan, Roll," and McQueen's camera presses in on Ejiofor's face as the man gradually joins in. The scene effectively completes Northup's transformation into the role of victim that he initially resisted. With his slow-burn approach, McQueen makes the air of defeat into an unnervingly visceral encounter.
The technique serves to elaborate on the decade-plus period covered over the course of the movie's 133 minutes. During that passage of time, the mounting sense of dread never lets up. At the one-hour mark, Northup finds himself on the plantation of depraved slave owner Edwin Epps (a convincingly monstrous Michael Fassbender), whose harsh antics provide the ultimate threat to Northup's stamina. While there are hints of tension between Epps and a neighboring white man, the script largely sweeps aside the specifics of the drama in favor of generalities that foreground the vividness of Northup's emotional turmoil.
On Epps' planation, the slave encounters a suicidal woman (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) subjected to virtually every form of abuse, which places Northup's desperation in the context of tragedies even deeper than his own. With the horrible finality of scenes where he witnesses other slaves meet worse fates -- whips and nooses figure prominently in the plot -- Northup takes on the role of spectator in a drama that predated his arrival.
It's all so credibly enacted that once Brad Pitt (whose Plan B productions produced the film) arrives in a bit part as a kind-hearted Canadian who visits the plantation and speaks out against slavery, the character's messianic qualities seem like a bit much. Yet by the time we get there, it's hard not to plead for an end to Northup's battle. More than a powerful elegy, "12 Years a Slave" is a mesmerizing triumph of art and polemics: McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by history into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you've been there.
Criticwire grade: A+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received at Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festival, "12 Years a Slave" has generated so much anticipation that it's guaranteed a strong opening weekend. As distributor Fox Searchlight opens the movie in more markets, it may suffer to some degree from grim expectations, but should remain strong given the word of mouth. Ejiofor is a lock for Best Performance in the Oscar race, as is McQueen and his movie.
A version of this review ran during the Telluride Film Festival.