Oscar predictions 2014: 12 Years a Slave

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Django Unchained in that it'sa brutal account of strong-willed slave in the segregated south.

This year's …

That said, expect fewer wisecracks, gun-play and 70s soul music on the soundtrack.

What's it all about?

12 Years a Slave is the memoir of Solomon Northup, born free in upstate New York but sold into bondage in 1840s Louisiana. Directed by the British artist Steve McQueen, the film version casts Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Michael Fassbender (the star of McQueen's two previous features) as plantation owner Edwin Epps. Northup protests his innocence and demands his freedom. But the north is a memory and, amid the cotton plantations outside New Orleans, he realises that he is merely one of many faceless, stateless pieces of property.

How did it happen?

An adaptation of the Northup memoir had been stuck in development for years before McQueen boarded the project in August 2011. The film eventually shot in Louisiana in the summer of 2012 with a reported budget of $20m (£12m). Co-stars include Benedict Cumberbatch as a Baptist preacher, Quvenzhané Wallis (Oscar-nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild) as Northup's daughter and co-producer Brad Pitt in a supporting turn as a Canadian carpenter and outrider for the abolitionist cause.

Nominations it wants

McQueen, a favourite of the art-house festival circuit, appears to be eyeing a mainstream breakthrough with his biggest film to date, while writer John Ridley (Three Kings and U-Turn) has a shout in the race for best adapted screenplay. Yet 12 Years a Slave turns the stage over to the main performers. Expect it to feature in the acting categories.

What it might win

Emboldened by excited advance word, bookies recently slashed the odds on Chiwetel Ejiofor being named best actor to 10/1, just behind Idris Elba (Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). In the meantime, Pitt and Fassbender run the risk of cancelling each other out in the supporting actor section. Is this shortlist big enough for the both of them?

Reasons to fall for it

Reading on mobile? Click to viewThe trailer suggests that 12 Years a Slave is an altogether more conventional movie than Hunger or Shame, the director's two previous features. It's full of sweeping strings, impassioned speeches and the sight of a wronged and noble hero fighting the forces of institutionalised bigotry. Hopefully, McQueen's formal precision will stop it straying into Amistad country.

Reasons it might fail

The sweeping strings, the impassioned speeches. The hackneyed plot about the wronged and noble hero. Worst of all, it could fall between two stools – being neither spare and rigorous enough to satisfy McQueen's fanbase nor, perhaps, soupy and sentimental enough to please the multiplex crowd.

When can we see it

12 Years a Slave was initially tipped to premiere at this year's Cannes film festival, where its non-appearance sparked inevitable (and as yet unsubstantiated) rumours that the film was in trouble. McQueen's drama now premieres in Toronto (a more reliable Oscar launchpad anyway), from where it will be rolled out to the US (on 18 October) and the UK (24 January).

In five words

Hard walk to promised land.

More from Oscar 2014 predictions series

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• Oscar predictions 2014: American Hustle

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Xan Brooks, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 21st August 2013 14.59 Europe/London

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