Steve McQueen's arresting portrait of Bobby Sands and the 1981 Hunger Strikes

Hunger tells the story of the 1981 IRA/INLA hunger strike in the Maze Prison, in which ten men died protesting the British government's refusal to grant political status to republican prisoners. 

Made by Blast! Films for Channel 4, and co-written and directed by Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen, the film is a balanced and violent piece, built around a committed central performance by Michael Fassbender (Cassandra's Dream, 300) as republican leader Bobby Sands. 

Fassbender, born in Heidelberg, Germany and raised in Killarney, County Kerry, underwent a crash diet to portray the emaciated Sands in the last six weeks of his life, the effects of which are shocking to say the least. Fassbender also employs a lilt-perfect Belfast brogue in his bravura depiction of the IRA’s most prominent martyr.

In order to establish the grim mood and prominent themes of the piece, however, McQueen holds Sands back until Hunger’s second act. The movie opens in a two-up, two-down suburban household, with a man rinsing his bloody knuckles in a bathroom sink. The man gets dressed and picks at an Ulster fry, preparing for the day ahead. He could be a postman, a security worker, a foreman. 

It's not until Raymond Lohan (played by Stuart Graham) checks underneath his car for the device that he has been trained to locate, however, with Mrs Lohan peering wearily from a window, that his profession becomes apparent. Lohan is a prison officer. 

We follow Lohan as he travels to the Maze Prison, where, in the officers’ locker room, a flash of a Union Jack key ring and snatches of macho chit-chat reinforce the already oppressive tone. It's not long before the reason behind Lohan's bloody knuckles becomes apparent.

The first IRA member we meet is Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a nervous-looking new arrival tagged as ‘non-cooperative’ for his refusal to wear the prison uniform. Gillen is tossed into a cell with another republican inmate, Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon). Campbell has been sentenced to 12 years, Gillen to six. The hunger strikes are already under way.

From the start the degraded conditions inside the cramped cells are unflinchingly realised. McQueen’s camera lingers on the maggots, the faeces and the urine. Food scraps and vomit carpet the floor. The walls are caked in filth.

The naked prisoners – on ‘blanket’ and ‘dirty’ protest – crouch under rags, unwashed and unshaven, determined in their struggle to gain Prisoner of War status. Chinks of light poke through a dirty, rust-framed window. It’s a mesmerising portrait of debasement, pertinent in its echoes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Later, when an RUC riot squad forcibly wash and shave the republican prisoners, the graphic brutality is terrifying. The scene, soundtracked by the ritualistic beating of batons against riot shields, is nightmarish. One young policeman hides behind a wall, sobbing as his colleagues mete out the punishment. It’s a harrowing reminder of the sweltering madhouse that Northern Ireland became under Margaret Thatcher’s rule.

Admirably, McQueen presents sympathetic characters on both sides of Northern Ireland’s political divide, with the London-born filmmaker steering clear of propagandist caricature. Lohan, whose ultimate fate is a chilling indictment of terrorism, remains a complex, identifiable character throughout. The defiant republicans are neither canonised nor demonised.

McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh’s screenplay renders whole swathes of the film dialogue free: a guard smoking in the snow; urine being swept down a corridor; Sand’s dying agonies as he festers in a prison hospital bed.

The breathtaking counterpoint is a single-take conversation between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), with the priest arguing that the IRA man’s suicidal hunger strike is a cynical devaluation of life. The 20-minute scene, shot in profile and expertly acted, is a startling highpoint as the picture sweeps to its denouement.

Sands' death is rendered in bruising detail, but as an historical piece it could be argued that Hunger is somewhat flawed. McQueen fails to place the hunger strike in its wider political context, which might have added extra drama to the film.  Nor does he state the crimes that Sands et al were sent to jail for (in Sands' case it was 14 years for weapons possession). Such details are conspicuous by their absence.

Though the director fumbles with some clunky symbolism in the movie’s final moments, Hunger is, neverthless, a crucial and persuasive visual account of the physical and mental deterioration of the hunger strikers.