A powerful reminder of slave horror

12 Years A Slave. Pic: PA Photo/Entertainment One.
12 Years A Slave. Pic: PA Photo/Entertainment One.

Americans are reportedly a little embarrassed that it has taken a British film-maker to deliver a film which tackles the horrors of slavery head-on.

Steve McQueen’s Oscar-tipped 12 Years a Slave (Cert 15) is a powerful visceral history lesson based on a memoir published in the 1850s which the Londoner of Nigerian heritage was appalled to find had become almost forgotten.

The writer is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who in 1841 before the American Civil War is a family man living in Saratoga in New York State and is treated more or less as an equal by his white peers.

Two men purporting to be entertainers lure him to Washington DC with the promise of work (he plays the violin) where they sell him into slavery.

With his papers stolen he is given a new name, Platt, and passed as a piece of chattel through a succession of slave owners until he fetches up on the plantation of deranged sadist Edwin Epps, played with frightening intensity by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender.

He has a sexual obsession with the beautiful young Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) who endures rape, abuse from Epps’ jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) and finally a hideous beating that is unbearable to watch, especially when McQueen brings his visual artist’s eye to bear with long lingering shots of splattering blood and flesh.

Performances – Fassbender’s crazed rages contrasting with Ejiofor’s agonising display of suppressed emotions – are all outstanding.

If there are any reservations it is that inevitably it is a long (134 minutes) one-note film with unremitting cruelty from the slave owners and passive endurance by the slaves.

Cinema has led us to expect some miraculous defiance and heroic fightback but there is no Django Unchained-style wild escapism here.

Shockingly and depressingly this is how it really was.

There is no escape from torture this week, it seems, which also sees the release of The Railway Man (Cert 15), telling the story of a man traumatised by his experience in a Japanese prison of war camp who eventually finds redemption and salvation through love late in life.

Adapted by Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce from the best-selling book by the late Eric Lomax, it stars Colin Firth as the railway enthusiast who was among the thousands of Allied prisoners captured after the 1942 fall of Singapore and forced to work on building the Thai-Burma railway.

When a secret radio receiver he builds with fellow prisoners is discovered, he is severely beaten and tortured, leaving him traumatised for many years

We first meet him in 1980 on a train conducting an awkward conversation with fellow passenger Patti (Nicole Kidman).

They fall in love and marry but his recurrent nightmares and refusal to speak about his demons threatens the relationship.

Then Lomax discovers that the Japanese interpreter he holds responsible for much of his torment is still alive and with Patti’s blessing he sets out to confront him.

It is an extraordinary story which cannot fail to touch the heart, especially its emotional resolution, although Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film, moving backwards and forwards from wartime to peacetime, doesn’t quite make up its mind whether it is a love story or a war drama.

Vince Vaughn stars in Delivery Man (Cert 12A) as a meat truck driver for his father’s New York delicatessen whose easy-going life is not without its problems.

In debt to the mob and dumped by his pregnant policewoman girlfriend,(Cobie Smulders), he learns that he fathered 533 children through sperm donations he made 20 years earlier.

And 142 of them have filed a lawsuit to reveal the identity of the donor.

In line with the current vogue of Judd Apatow-style comedies of slackers who are forced to face up to family responsibilities, Vaughn suddenly acquires a conscience and attempts to become “guardian angel” to his offspring.

Appreciation of Delivery Man no doubt depends on how much you go for Vince Vaughn and his self-deprecating slobbish charm.