Is it possible to convey, through the experience of just one man, the sweep and enormity of the horror that was American slavery?
That, quite simply, is the formidable task that British director Steve McQueen has set for himself with his new film, the blistering 12 Years a Slave. And even if the movie weren't as good as it is, we'd need to thank him for trying; far too few filmmakers have had the courage or initiative to address head-on the darkest chapter of U.S. history.
As it happens, the film is stunningly good, thanks both to McQueen's unflinching, unsentimental approach and to impeccable casting, most crucially of the wonderfully expressive Chewitel Ejiofor as a man with a truly extraordinary - and extraordinarily true - story.
The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a black man who was born free in New York. In 1841, Northup, a skilled violinist, was lured to Washington, D.C., with the offer of work. Instead, his "employers" drugged him and sold him to a slave trader.
The very title of the film gives away a key fact, but it's hardly a spoiler. The crux of the movie is not whether, but HOW, Northup summoned the strength and the cunning to survive 12 years in the hell of a series of Louisiana plantations.
Crucial early scenes depict a comfortable, happy life in Saratoga, N.Y., where Northup lived with his wife and two children. That all changes in one hellish moment, when he awakes in shackles, his wallet and papers gone, and realizes he has no way of proving who he is. He loses even his name.
Soon, Northup's on his way to Louisiana. Shock - his, and ours - deepens as he stands for inspection, surrounded by other slaves for sale, many naked, poked and prodded like cattle by their seller (a frighteningly banal Paul Giamatti) who has no problem separating a mother from her small children. (Later, as the mother - a moving Adepero Oduye - weeps, her new mistress consoles her: "Your children will soon be forgotten.")
Northup's first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, in the scheme of things, a more sympathetic type, and he appreciates his new slave's intelligence. But he's powerless to protect Northup from a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano, reliably chilling), and a confrontation Northup has with the overseer leads to one of the film's most excruciating scenes - perhaps one of the most painful in any film about slavery. Hung from a tree, Northup is left to dangle for hours, teetering between life and death. His toes, which barely touch the ground, are his only hope. All the while, plantation life continues in full view of this horror: children playing, other slaves working, the mistress looking on from the porch.
Northup survives, but only to be sent off to another owner, the monstrous Edwin Epps, who cites scripture as support for 150-lash whippings. Epps - mesmerizingly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, a McQueen regular - also has sexual desires for a lovely young slave, Patsey, who has to endure not only Master's advances but the poisonous, violent jealousy of his wife (Sarah Paulson, also excellent.) A scene in which Patsey is subjected to Epps' most crazed fury is so harrowing, you may need to close your eyes - but don't. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is shattering in the role.
But the film truly belongs to Ejiofor, whose big, soulful eyes seem to register so many things at once: Shock, pain, grit, determination, abject despair at times, cautious hope at others - and always, dignity.
"I don't want to survive," he says at one point. "I want to LIVE." But before he can live, he must survive. It's an extraordinary tale. How McQueen and his team portray that tale is quite extraordinary, too.
Running time: 133 minutes
Rating: Four stars out of four