I haven’t seen Steve McQueen’s earlier efforts, Hunger (which friends of mine hated) and Shame (which friends of mine loved) and as noted in my earlier post, I was a little wary of guilt porn here. It’s not that the brutal horrors of the American slave trade need not be recreated on film, it’s more a question of what can McQueen add to what has been depicted already. Slim Pickens opting to save a handcart from quicksand but leaving his slaves to their doom in Blazing Saddles is shocking and funny, but Blazing Saddles was a long time ago.

The recent cycle of Hollywood movies examining America’s racist past has so failed to produce a major movie which wasn’t either twee (The Help), focused only on politics (Lincoln) or simply demented (Django Unchained) so there is maybe a need for a movie like this, just as there was, arguably, a need for Schindler’s List to be made, which almost trumps any conversation about the film’s actual merits as a piece of cinema.

Well, I don’t really think I’m sticking my neck out too far when I say that broadly speaking I think slavery was A Bad Thing and so I’m not surprised to have left the cinema sickened and horrified by the brutalisation of those poor unfortunate wretches who found themselves owned by other humans. But overall, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling that this was a magnificent piece of film-making. Important, yes. Necessary, possibly. Deeply felt, almost certainly. But free of flaw? That’s another matter.

The story, just in case you didn’t know, concerns one Solomon Northup, living as a free man in Saratoga, New York, who unwisely accepts the invitation of a couple of white strangers to come and play violin with them in Washington (where slavery is still legal). After imbibing a Mickey Finn, he comes to in chains, and is told that his name is now Platt and that he is free no longer. He is passed from owner to owner until, well, the title of the film kind of spoils the ending.

As might be expected, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit compose the shots wonderfully, holding on certain images for much longer than might be expected which gives them a stark beauty, even if what is being depicted is horrendously inhumane. And McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley assemble any number of individual scenes of tremendous power – the slave trader touting his wares, the plantation owner’s wife who hurls a decanter at the comely young slave woman who is her husband’s favourite, Northup desperately lying his way out of trouble at knife-point when his letters to his wife and children are discovered, and most shockingly of all, Northup forced to whip another slave to the point of death. Guilt porn? Maybe just a little, but McQueen’s camera – neither cold, dispassionate observer like Michael Hanneke’s, nor soaringly emotive like Spielberg’s – makes you feel every horrible lash.

However, where the filmmakers stumble is in their failure to successfully link individual scenes together to make arresting sequences. This is a film full of unnecessary stops-and-starts, with far too many one-or-two scene guest stars (Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Michael K Williams, Sal off of Mad Men) breaking up the flow. Almost no element of the story carries over from one scene to the next, and several key moments are robbed of their power, either because the context is missing, or in one case, the bizarre choice to show that moment as a very early flash-forward before the film has really got going.

It’s also striking to me that, in common with Schindler’s List, McQueen has chosen a very particular, very unusual slave story to tell, just as Spielberg didn’t want to tell a tale of everyday ordinary Auschwitz folk. Oskar Schindler’s perspective on the Nazi holocaust is utterly unique and the moral calculus which he performs gives a very specific lens through which to view the terrors of the Final Solution. In theory, Northup’s position does the same. Although many free black man and women were kidnapped by the slave trade, almost none escaped to tell the tale, and so Northup’s story is very unusual, and he also makes an excellent viewpoint character. How much easier for McQueen’s affluent, free audience to identify with a man who had everything they had but had it snatched away?

And yet the demands of the plot mean that we only very occasionally get this perspective. Northup is told early on – tell no-one who you really are, tell no-one you can read and write – and so most of the time, he looks and sounds like all the other slaves and this opportunity for a new vantage point is at the very least muted. That’s why it is so frustrating to see his early attempts at writing a letter thrown away as an unnecessary throw-forward. It’s also striking that his eventual release is dealt with in an almost perfunctory manner, in the last few minutes of the film, and his reunion with his family and rehabilitation after the agonies he has suffered provide none of the expected catharsis.

So, why is this and why does nobody else care? Well, there’s a perception that a well-crafted screenplay with neat set-ups and payoffs is formulaic or cheating. This I think is very far from the truth. Obviously, such a thing can be done badly and when the plot gears grind too loudly, one can no longer believe in the events depicted. But even to do this badly takes a lot more effort than what has apparently been done here – make a list of the noteworthy events in Northup’s 12 years’ incarceration and then run them in sequence until he is released. But maybe this stop-start, never building, never crescendoing quality is deliberate? Either to make the film seem more important, or to make it seem more authentic, or to give it the grinding, never-ending, soul-crushing feeling of a life in servitude.

None of these seem to me to be defensible positions. The Shawshank Redemption, for example, free of the perceived need to tell an important story about a terrible human tragedy manages to be authentically relentless, and well-structured, and even to include moments of grace and beauty which Slave can’t or won’t. And it’s not like writing the script didn’t involve making a thousand creative decisions about what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasise, what to overlook and how to paper over the gaps in Northup’s account. All of these choices certainly have been made – this is not a documentary and it certainly doesn’t suffer from walking Wikipedia entry syndrome like say, Behind the Candelabra.

Thankfully, this shortcoming ultimately does very little to undermine what is essentially a very fine piece of film-making. The performances are excellent throughout, with especial praise going to Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who I think must now be a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress for her heart-rending turn as the luckless Patsey. But it’s on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s sturdy shoulders that the whole enterprise rests and he is nothing short of magnificent. When McQueen’s camera hangs on his face, impassive and yet hauntingly expressive, he is able to take the disparate bits and pieces of Northup’s life and somehow braid them together in the way he stares at the horizon. In those moments, the film achieves an almost terrible beauty and an almost unbearable sadness.

Edited 2/2/14 to correct some errors of fact and poor phrasing picked up by commenters – thank you.