If there was ever any doubt whether a British director and a cast headed by British (and German-Irish) actors could make a quality film about a pivotal period in American history, "12 Years a Slave" should put that to rest. Critics are lauding Steve McQueen's film, which is based on Solomon Northup's account of his experiences as a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841.
Much of the praise is directed toward Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Michael Fassbender as demonic slave owner Edwin Epps. This is Fassbender's third go-round with McQueen (they worked together on "Hunger" and "Shame"), and the director is also getting favorable reviews for his unflinching treatment of a difficult subject.
Here's a sampling of what critics are saying about "12 Years a Slave."
"As Solomon, Ejiofor gives an electrifying, engulfing performance that will be talked about for years. The educated Solomon is forbidden to protest his situation or even articulate it. Not without being beaten or worse. But Ejiofor's eyes, deep pools of confusion, pain and barely repressed rage, tell us all we need to know. Want proof that acting can be an art form? Here it is." — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
"Proving yet again why he's one of the most exciting actors working today, Fassbender transforms his character into a compelling human monster — a figure for whom malice and affection are intrinsically entwined, as they were for Ralph Fiennes' terrifying Nazi commandant in Schindler's List." — A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club
"McQueen's images have considerable power, and I'd watch his films less guardedly if I thought he were searching for something more than his characters' reactions to extreme degradation. In this case, at least, he has found a milieu in which a feeling of entrapment should — and does — permeate every frame." — David Edelstein, New York Magazine
"'12 Years a Slave' never lets the viewer off easy with any sort of ending that might be considered a 'happy' one. After witnessing and enduring everything Solomon goes through, we really could use something uplifting to send us home and McQueen refuses to cowtow to that need." — Edward Douglas, ComingSoon.net
The Last Word
"Whether or not it's festooned with trophies, '12 Years a Slave' will endure as a powerful work of art and as a meaningful contribution to this country's ongoing conversation (and frequent amnesia) about race. It's as difficult and harrowing as the material demands that it be." — Alonso Duralde, The Wrap