Ignoring the politics, this portrayal of the 1980s Maze hunger strikers gives an artist's view of squalor and inspiration.
Of all the work that has come out of the Troubles - the three decades of political and religious violence that began in the mid-1960s and shook Northern Ireland and beyond - nothing has provided such a brutally austere portrait as Hunger. Some Mother's Son (1996) told the same story - that of the hunger strikers - with a lighter stylistic touch. And In the Name of the Father (1992), with its all-star cast and Bono-laced soundtrack, was an emotive crowd-pleaser (it was nominated for seven Academy Awards).
Hunger, directed by the Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, focuses on the protests that took place at the notorious Maze prison in Northern Ireland during the late 1970s, and culminated in the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. The IRA inmates' aim was to restore their status as political prisoners. Following the British government's removal of paramilitary prisoners' special-category status in 1976, they initially protested by refusing to wear prison uniform, choosing instead to fashion garments out of prison blankets. This soon escalated into the "dirty protests", in which they refused to leave their cells, which meant they were unable to wash or slop out.
The subsequent hunger strikes, which saw 10 people die, were a last resort that served to fuel support for the republican cause and gave the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, the power to start contesting elections - an act that ultimately propelled them into mainstream politics. As it happens, bar the odd reedy interjection from Margaret Thatcher and concise opening and closing captions, there is little here in the way of political context. Instead, the focus is on the steady dehumanisation of the prisoners, who, refusing to wash or cut their hair, look like cavemen. In turn, they are treated as such by the guards, who have the unenviable task of occasionally beating them into bathing and hosing down their filthy cells.
Their squalor and misery are flawlessly depicted in beautifully shot, usually silent scenes: a prisoner repeatedly attempts to entice a fly on to his finger; a guard methodically mops a filthy corridor. For the first hour of the film, there is barely any dialogue at all. Just the horror and futility of the protest, as the British government refuses to back down. Then we are introduced to Bobby Sands (Fassbender), who has plans to implement a second hunger strike (the first was called off when the authorities provisionally agreed to some of their demands, then reneged, to the prisoners' fury). In a masterfully shot, unbroken 20-minute take, in which the prisoner and a Roman Catholic priest sit face to face amid coils of smoke, Sands rationalises his plan. Even if they do all die, he says, it will inspire a new generation of people to follow them. It is the pivotal point in the film before we see Sands descend into the horrors of starvation and a grim end.
Fassbender had to do practically just that for 10 weeks to achieve the necessary degree of emaciation (Sands died after 66 days); and it is something to behold. As if to explain the true horror of Sands's ordeal, we are subjected to a doctor's prognosis of organs failing, and shown graphic scenes of bodily decay. Their struggle, the film says, was utterly without glamour. Even more thought-provoking than the brilliantly evoked sense of abjection and Fassbender's mesmerising performance, is the film's abstention from comment. The guards are depicted as being brutal, but not without a human side. The prisoners are shown almost as animals, but unswervingly loyal to their cause. Both are, to an extent, demonised. And we are shown the price paid on both sides of the conflict when one of the prison guards is viciously murdered while visiting his elderly mother in a care home.
There are moments when McQueen seems to be revelling in his artfulness. And protracted shots of cloudy skies, falling snow and drifting feathers, while adding a succinct contrast to the hell indoors, prevent the pace from ever getting past a crawl. But this is not a traditional political drama. And the sense of claustrophobia and suffering would perhaps not have been so successfully realised without it.
McQueen is an artist whose previous work has consisted of installations, so this shift to the big screen is exceptional. But his depiction of the human aspect of the drama, and the depths to which people will lower themselves for their beliefs, is a work of art in itself.