Hunger (15)

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The Independent Culture

If you want a definition of "gruelling", here it is. Steve McQueen's account of the 1981 "dirty protest" by IRA inmates in Northern Ireland's infamous Maze Prison takes docu-realism to a level that's hard to watch, and to stomach.

It then horrifically surpasses it in depicting the starvation strike led by Bobby Sands that resulted in his death 66 days later. Those old enough to remember the news at the time will shudder to be reminded of it. What complicates one's responses to Hunger is the formalist presentation of the events, and the realisation that, as much of a work of art, it's also a work of martyrology. At first it looks to take an even-handed approach, dividing its perspective between a prison officer (Stuart Graham) and a terrified new inmate (Brian Milligan), both struggling to cope with the dehumanising effects of the Maze stand-off. But once the officer's story is brutally curtailed, the film transfers its focus almost entirely to the Republican viewpoint. At first you check your gag-reflex on seeing the shit-daubed cells; later, the carefully lit shot of a shaggy-headed prisoner against a brown wall assumes the look of a martyred saint in a mediaeval religious painting.

The haunting art references are intensified in the film's last third as Sands (Michael Fassbender – brilliant) begins his strike. At first the sores on his body call to mind the livid, meaty horror of a Francis Bacon; then his wasting figure summons the pathetic vulnerability of an Egon Schiele. The earlier long shot of a prison officer slowly mopping a corridor with disinfectant is mesmerising, but it hardly carries the same emotional impact. The film's middle panel – a static argument between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) about the morality of killing oneself – breaks the visual spell, and feels pretty inadequate to the issues. It is impossible not to be affected by McQueen's film-making, and equally impossible not to be suspicious of it. It's moving, and maddening, no matter on which side of the argument your sympathies may lie.