This is awesome, horrific and unforgettable. In 1981, Bobby Sands and other IRA prisoners went on a hunger strike. Leading up to this, hundreds went on a year-long ‘dirty protest’ in the Maze prison’s H-blocks. You’ll need a strong stomach to watch some of it, such as a new arrival’s entry into his shit-smeared, maggot-infested cell.
The prisoners’ demand was simple – to have political, rather than criminal, status. This meant the right to wear their own clothes, to a weekly letter and visit, and to associate freely with other prisoners. But this is not a film about the politics of the IRA. It’s rather about the extreme physical privations and pain these men put themselves through.
Director McQueen is a video artist and Turner Prize winner and his début drama is often eerily and brutally beautiful. We see hands moulding a dam wall out of food slops and then pouring piss under a cell door. The liquid seeps and glows down the prison corridor. Later, the sight of half-naked prisoners, talking animatedly to each other in a chapel service, with the priest intoning to no-one but himself, evokes Rembrandt.
The script, written with Enda Walsh, sketches the political context simply and mostly wordlessly. Michael Fassbender is very convincing as Sands, though flashbacks to Sands as a 12-year-old fail badly – difficult to find a child actor who looks capable of the mercy killing that we know the young Sands carried out.
At one point we hear Margaret Thatcher describe Sands and his comrades simply as cowards and criminals. They clearly weren’t. But a rare and stunning, light-filled scene shows the killing of a prison officer, reminding us that along with the pride, physical courage and self-sacrifice, went bloody-minded commitment.