Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan, Lalor Roddy 15A cert, gen release, 95 min *****
TAKING ON a highly emotive and politically charged subject, British artist Steve McQueen has produced a thoughtfully considered and firmly unflinching drama in his feature debut.
In dealing with the 10 IRA hunger strikers who took their protest to the death in 1981, this riveting drama prompts the viewer to reflect on how events ever reached that impasse and how we somehow got from there to the peace process.
Hungerbegins with a close-up on the bruised knuckles of a man (played by Stuart Graham) as he prepares for another day's work as a prison officer. We soon learn his injuries were caused by punching prisoners at the Maze. The incarceration of a new inmate Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) allows the film to illustrate the regime when IRA men are on the blanket protest to have their special-category status restored. Margaret Thatcher's voice is heard several times on the soundtrack, insisting there will be "no political status".
Gillen is put in a filthy cell where the walls are smeared with excrement. We see how messages are smuggled, and how the prisoners use Mass as a chance to talk among themselves. We witness the violent consequences when the prisoners riot, and they walk a gauntlet of fists and batons before being strip-searched.
And we meet Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) without being told why he's behind bars. About halfway into the film there is a sense of relief when it moves outside the claustrophobic confines of the prison, but that respite is short-lived when the scene ends in a cold-blooded murder.
The style of the film alters significantly when Sands has an extended conversation with a priest (Liam Cunningham). The camera remains static as they engage in banter before addressing the fact that Sands wants to start a hunger strike and that 75 men are willing to join him. "Life must mean nothing to you," concludes the priest.
From that point of no return, we observe the physical deterioration, mental disorientation and slow demise of Sands, who died after 66 days on hunger strike. Dialogue is minimal during this harrowing, deliberately disturbing sequence, throughout which Fassbender's performance is astonishing in its powerful expressiveness.
This haunting, boldly unconventional film plays on in the mind well after it's over, as we ponder what we have seen and the issues it raises. Director McQueen and Enda Walsh, the Irish playwright who collaborated with him on the screenplay, have approached those issues with an evident concern for the human cost on both sides of the political divide. In the film's fascination with the use of the human body as the final weapon of protest, it takes on a strong contemporary relevance in the age of the suicide bomber.