Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon
Director: by Steve McQueen
THIS film won the Camera d’Or for the best first-time director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and this year’s Sydney Film Festival’s international competition.
It tells the story of the last months in the life of Irish Republican Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) who, after more than two months on a hunger strike for the right to be considered a political prisoner and not a criminal, died at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.
He was buried following a requiem Mass at St Peter’s Cathedral, west Belfast, following his death in May, 1981.
Liam McMahon and Brian Milligan play Sands’ fellow prisoners who, like Sands, insist they are political prisoners, not criminals.
Stuart Graham plays the part of the head guard Raymond Lohan, who lives his life in constant fear of terrorism and who engages in brutal violence.
The prisoners are treated cruelly, inhumanely and with total disrespect for their rights, and Lohan pays the ultimate price in a terrorist pay-back.
The film vividly depicts the conflict between IRA prisoners and the guards of the prison in the living hell of one of its infamous H Blocks.
Sands was the first of 10 men to die. The hunger strike ended five months later when the British Government started to meet the prisoners’ demands.
Fortunately, Sands’ story was imprinted on the memory of Steve McQueen, who was a child of 11 years at the time, and he later went on to direct this movie.
The film – much of it without words – has an intense focus to it and an extraordinary inner-centredness.
This is not a film about martyrdom, or being a hero, or being a victim, as some might think, but a vivid portrayal of a person who went to extremes to say what he wanted to say.
It is about men who chose firstly not to wash or wear a prison uniform and then not to eat, in order to be heard.
Strikingly pertinent to all those interested in the preservation of life, there is a long, unforgettable conversation between Sands and a Catholic priest Father Dominic Moran (played by Liam Cunningham) about the decision to go on strike.
Engaging in small talk at first, their conversation – with their profiles dramatically silhouetted throughout – pits the ideological commitment of Sands against the force of the priest’s moral position.
The interaction between them compellingly and cogently confronts the issues surrounding the importance of life, and puts Sands’ decision to sacrifice his life in ethical perspective.
This is a movie that exemplifies controlled stoicism, and it is terrifyingly powerful in its uncompromising avoidance of any form of sentimentality. Its stoicism and endurance contrast starkly with popular images of Irish sentimentality or romanticism.
Fassbender went on a medically supervised diet to do this film and the scenes of Sands towards the end of the movie are almost unbearable to watch. Graphic scenes show his skeletal frame, ravaged by hunger and sores.
The camera work by Sean Bobbitt is haunting and he fills the screen, almost frame by frame, with images of great poetic power.
He seems particularly well suited to McQueen, who was a visual artist of considerable renown before he moved across to film-direction.
This film is entirely unremitting in what it depicts, and it does much more than dramatise history. It uses history to depict events that challenge and confront, and it presents no easy winner.
One can’t help but draw parallels with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Australia’s own detention centres where refugees have a story to be heard and understood by those who prefer not to hear their message.
In the final run, however, this is McQueen’s and Fassbender’s film: McQueen’s, because the film captures so vividly his vision of a determined individual trapped in a horrific environment; and Fassender’s, because he pushes his body to such impossible limits.
Complex and controversial, the film explores the cruelty of civil war in Ireland in a deeply moving and unsettling way. “Entertaining” and “enjoyable” are not the right words to describe this film.
Here, we have cinema artistry at work that is displayed boldly and with exceptional strength.