It’s not hard to see why video artist Steve McQueen’s debut feature caused a sensation at Cannes ’08, where it picked up the first-time director’s prize, the Caméra d’Or. McQueen’s cool, relentless gaze leads us through the final weeks in the life of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), first of the IRA prisoners to die on hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981.
Already there have been murmurs (likely to turn into howls of outrage on release) that McQueen makes a hero of a terrorist. But such a simplistic view is way off-beam. The artist-turned filmmaker isn’t concerned with any acts of terrorism Sands committed outside; he takes that as read. He’s got two aims: first, to show us what it was like being an inmate (prisoner or guard) of the Maze at the height of the Troubles.
Drawing parallels with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, he’s said that “we need to remember that things like this happened in Britain”. Scenes where naked prisoners are mercilessly beaten spare us no details – their impact underlined by the shot of a young guard hiding terrified around a corner, his fear-filled eyes wide with horror.
McQueen shoots much of his film almost without dialogue, heightening its bleak intensity. By contrast, the key central scene is an encounter between Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) as the prisoner embarks on his hunger strike, shot in just one extraordinary, 20-minute-long, fixed-camera take.
This takes us to the heart of McQueen’s second aim – to understand why an intelligent man should condemn himself to a lingering death. No sides are taken: each man’s arguments are given due weight and it’s clear why, despite mutual respect, there’s a gulf between them.