The first reviews are in on Steve McQueen's new biopic 12 Years a Slave and the critics haven't raved about a film in such a way since, well, Gravity. Rivalling flashbulb-friendly Venice is the Telluride Film Festival – now in its 40th year and having hosted world premieres of such Academy favourites as Argo, Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech.
This year’s five-day event played saw the first screening of 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodward and Lupita Nyong’o. Based on the true story of free black American Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor), who in the mid-19th century was kidnapped and sold back into slavery, the feature follows the cruelties of his twelve-year journey back to liberty.
Here's what the enraptured reviewers had to say...
Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy said, "Despite the upsetting and vivid brutality, Fox Searchlight has a winner here that will generate copious media coverage, rivet the attention of the black public, stir much talk in political and educational circles and appeal to film audiences who crave something serious and different."
McCarthy added that, "Ejiofor is terrific in a demanding character... One feels his determination to get back to his family virtually at all times even though he doesn't talk about it, and toward the end there is an unusual extended close-up of him in which he looks out toward the unknown future as his eyes express a quicksilver array of emotions, from wonder to fear to hope."
The comments are echoed across the initial reviews, with the British actor uniting the critics in their praise. William Goss of Film.com commented on "Ejiofor's tightly clenched conviction," which "perfectly embodies hope and righteousness against all odds. He gives the performance of his career to date, and what's more, he gives 'Slave' its bruised, beating heart with every scene."
Chris Willman in Indiewire writes, "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."
Giving the film an A+ grade, he adds, "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."
Variety's senior film critic, Peter Debruge noted, "If Django Unchained opened the door, then 12 Years a Slave goes barrelling through it, tackling its subject with utmost seriousness." But in addition to heaping praise on Ejiofor, Debruge also singles out two of his co-stars for their performances. Fassbender's turn as evil plantation owner Edwin Epps he terms his "most courageous yet, tapping into a place of righteous superiority that reminds just how scary such racism can be."
Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong'o, who plays fellow slave Patsey on Epps’ plantation, he labels as the film's breakthrough star: "Actors like Nyong'o don't come along often, and she's a stunning discovery amidst an ensemble that carves out room for proven talents such as Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt to shine."
Writing in Hitfix, Gregory Ellwood also commends the film's stellar supporting cast, observing how, “McQueen is also blessed by fantastic small performances by a number of great actors including Paul Dano as an insecure overseer on Northup’s first plantation, Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s sympathetic (to a degree) first owner, Paul Giamatti as a cold-minded slave auctioneer, Alfre Woodward as a kept plantation owner’s wife and Pitt as Northup’s eventual salvation.”
He adds, “Sarah Paulson deserves special recognition for superbly avoiding clichés in the familiar role of a jealous plantation owner’s wife.”
12 Years a Slave is due in UK cinemas on 24 January 2014. Watch the trailer below…