Of Time and the City (12A)

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The Independent Culture

Liverpool, the city of vanished splendours and tragic departures, has never been paid a more poignant tribute than it is here. Terence Davies's impressionistic docu-memoir is at once a love letter to his birthplace and a farewell: "we leave the place we love, and spend a lifetime trying to regain it." The film attempts that reclamation through an inspired compound of poetry, aphorism and music, which archive producer Jim Anderson links to extraordinary images of Liverpool in the Fifties and Sixties. Born into the proud but poor working-class, Davies confronts the twin determinants of his youth, Catholicism and homosexuality ("caught between the Canon and the criminal law"), before broadening his perspective to damn the monarchy, to mock The Beatles, and to lament the municipal vandalism that turned parts of the city into a high-rise necropolis.

Yet the mood is fuelled by affection as much as indignation, and bright in the weave of reminiscences are black-and-white images of the 1955 Grand National (his mother backs the winner, Quare Times – "each way"), of the Lyceum tea-rooms, and of the now-demolished Overhead Railway, a colossal structure that could be out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. There's an incantatory, almost Betjmanesque strain to the elegy, delivered in Davies's purring basso profundo and heightened by a choice of music ranging from Handel and Mahler to Peggy Lee. Some of it is misplaced: "Dirty Old Town" is an ode to Salford, not Liverpool, and The Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy" makes a very tenuous link to footage of troops departing for the Korean War. But then this is a personal vision, not a perfect one. Along with Guy Maddin's equally stunning documentary My Winnipeg, Davies's film is a milestone in autobiographical cinema, but also a document on Northern Britain in mid-century that will resonate for years to come.

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.

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