Tom Shone in More Intelligent Life:
The Oscar for Best Picture is widely expected to go to “12 Years a Slave”. Adapted from Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir about being snatched from his family in the north and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film is constructed almost like a horror movie, each circle of hell bigger than the last. Walloped and poked by a slave-trader, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is viciously abused by an overseer, only to arrive—out of the frying pan, into hellfire—at the plantation of a “nigger-breaker” (Michael Fassbender) and his wife, whose chief pleasure in life is to see her husband's prized slave mistress suffer. To adapt Martin Amis's line about shotgun blasts in the films of Sam Peckinpah: after “12 Years a Slave”, a whipping ceases to look like something you bounce back from. This is the third film from Steve McQueen, whose work is all about the control of a body. In “Hunger” that body belonged to the hunger-striker Bobby Sands, played by Fassbender, whose emaciated form became a theatre of war. The film was brutal, austere—as furiously controlled as its subject. In “Shame”, the body was that of a sex addict, also played by Fassbender, propelled around lower Manhattan by appetites uncurbed—the opposite of Sands's predicament. Critics snickered, but there was no doubting McQueen's singleness of focus: in his films the body is a battlefield, scarred and cratered by a fierce, existential fight for autonomy.
It was only a matter of time before he embarked on a film about slavery. That he has made the best film ever made on the subject isn't saying that much. Slavery is one of those black-hole subjects, like the Holocaust, that involved so much suffering that the result is either humanitarian kitsch or exploitation: “The Color Purple” or “Django Unchained”. McQueen resolutely refuses to slot into either tradition, combining the cruel spectacle of the latter with the moral anger of the former. Does he want to put the audience through it? No question. In the most memorable scene, Solomon is left hanging from a tree by a noose, barely able to breathe, his toes slipping in the mud beneath him. McQueen holds the shot for several excruciating minutes while Solomon fights to stay upright. Behind him, other slaves go about their chores, and children play beneath the sun-dappled willows.