I rented this almost out of obligation — oh, critical acclaim, some kind of prominent artist behind it all, the Troubles, Bobby Sands. Yes, sure, sounds good for me, let’s scan through it quickly. But I found this film astonishing, powerful and beautiful and brutal and unexpected in its force and aesthetics. I can’t recommend it more highly.
And, yes, it is about the group of Irish prisoners leading the blanket [no uniforms accepted, prisoners naked but for woolen blankets] and dirty [urine spilled into the halls, shit smeared all over the walls] protests, demanding political status from Thatcher’s government, and about Bobby Sands, more centrally, deciding upon a hunger strike and then slowly, painfully whittled away. But Steve McQueen’s focus is on the body, as a complex site of political and aesthetic will. The film opens obliquely, a man going through his morning ablutions, particularly a strange slow ritual of soaking his hands, knuckles up, in a washbasin. We realize, quite a bit later, that he’s a guard for the British prison–McQueen keeps attuned to his face, to the putting on of clothes, to the soaking hands, to a cigarette taken in the snow. Some long, suspenseful time passes before this man’s specific interaction with the prisoners is revealed–and by the time we see what he does, we’ve already been immersed in a precise delineation of what his doing does to him.
Then the film shifts focus to a cell, and two prisoners — and we get more dialogue, a clearer sense of the narrative frame (the political battles, especially), but still the film centers on these bodies: stripped before guards, huddling in woolen cloth, shaggy and dirty then forcibly shaven and bathed, beaten, smearing feces all over the walls, nibbling at crusts, hands digging through piles of maggots and offal to conceal messages, masturbating….
And only some while later does the film ‘find’ Sands (a remarkable Michael Fassbender), who emerges from the crowd of background prisoners, slowly taking his own arguments and personal story to center stage. There is an amazing, fixed-camera debate between Sands and a sympathetic priest that provides so much of that political context yet so much more, too, and after many minutes, many cigarettes smoked, the camera shifts position to frame Sands, telling a story.
I feared yet another romanticized portrait of brutalized men, deciding to “own” their own bodies . . . but McQueen’s vision manages to find both the beauty of all these bodies yet never to gloss the brutality. Sands has a point but isn’t a saint, and the early focus on the guard (and subsequent attention to him and various colleagues’ reactions) dismantles the demonization so frequent in narratives of the Troubles.
I’d love to hear what people thought of this.