Beautiful is not a word you'd expect to describe a film about hunger strikers in Belfast's Maze prison in the 1980s or at any time but it is an apt word to describe Steve McQueen's feature directorial debut. The former Turner Prize winner has transferred his artistic skills to the big screen to tell this compelling yet disturbing tale about humanity and the lack thereof.
In 1981 a number of Republican prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, went on hunger strike in an attempt to receive the Special Category Status denied to them by the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
This is not a political film yet 'Hunger' is a political human story, revealing the last few months of Sands' life. It's a story that people, the Irish and English in particular, are all too familiar with but seen from this haunting perspective, it's a very different view of the horror of those days. While it's not a documentary or a reconstruction of exact events, the film is based on true happenings and is an astonishing portrayal of evil. The ugly face of hatred is unmasked, revealing the effects on the human mind, body and soul. McQueen's message is that, regardless of which side of the community you are on, whether perpetrator or receiver of violence, prison guard or prisoner, in the end both will lose.
'Hunger' is laid out very clearly in a three-act structure, perhaps McQueen's wish to keep a simple, strict format on his debut. The second act consists of a gripping 22-minute dialogue between Irish actor Cunningham as Fr Dominic Moran and German-Irish Fassbender as Sands. In what has transpired to be the longest single shot in cinema history, the two debate the morality of self-imposed starvation, which is central to the film.
It's a testament, not only to the calibre of both actors but also to McQueen and brilliant Irish writer Enda Walsh that the gamble of delivering this long, set-sparse, verbally-rich scene works. Sands arguing that, deprived of all other means, the only entity at the disposal of political prisoners was their own bodily functions and the priest, arguing that to starve oneself is a form of suicide.
Fassbender's performance is outstanding and not only because of his transformation, under medical supervision, for the role. The result is disturbing and arouses an array of emotions - from pity to shame to compassion - but he also embodies other aspects of Sands as leader, fighter, son and father.
Also unforgettable is Graham who manages to portray the two coinciding personalities, of the prison guards' conflicting parallel universes, eerily well.
This is a visceral film to be experienced. It is harrowing and exhausting but don't let that put you off because it is also very rewarding. Award winning Sean Bobbitt's cinematography is stunning, complementing McQueen's eye for detail. The result is long lingering shots which are both generous to plot and audience alike. Many of these dialogue sparse scenes are either so beautiful or disturbing, or both, that they stay with you long after.
One extremely provocative scene, involving both extreme violence and abuse, is laid bare and McQueen doesn't shy away from what he perceives to be the reality of the situation. The audience are not sheltered and the film is richer for it. We've had TV, print, radio reports and films about the hunger strikes but this film lets audiences listen, taste and smell life in the H block. Questions are raised in this timely reminder of the importance of humanitarianism which is just as relevant today as it was in the 1980s in the Maze.
A powerful, unforgettable, important film that people should want to see.
To listen to our interviews with Liam Cunningham and director Steve McQueen, click here
To listen to our interview with Stuart Graham, click here