(Steve McQueen, 2008)
McQueen, in his stunningly accomplished debut, displays an acute understanding of the power of the medium. Its there in the first scene. We follow a Prison Guard - employed in the Maze in 1970s Northern Ireland - through some of the moments of his routine. He bathes his bloodied knuckles in cold water. He smokes a cigarette. His wife makes him a fry-up. He checks his street for potential assassins and the underside of his car for bombs before leaving for work. All of it beautifully composed - the framing and lighting distinctively stylish. That and the sound gives it all texture and a truly sensual reality - the crunch of the Guard's toast is shockingly intimate, the rustle the fabric of a shirt makes as he dresses, the gush of tapwater into a wash basin. All of this means that when the focus shifts to the Republican Prisoners engaged in a dirty protest - not washing, smearing their excrement on their cell-walls, clad only in blankets - we can smell the filth, feel the maggots writhing on the floor. The violence of their beatings is given horrific weight in this film. The focus shifts again, to Bobby Sands, who would lead the hunger strike which would kill him after 66 days. Michael Fassbender is incredible in the role, and the later scenes, where his emaciated body seems to fade away before us, are almost unwatchable in their power and visceral quality. Its a formally brave film - McQueen uses long static shots brilliantly, but mixes them with tight close ups and moments of pure visual poetry. Perhaps the film's bravest gamble is the long central scene of Sands debating his intentions with a Priest (Liam Cunningham), which McQueen films in one ten minute long set-up. This puts the burden on Enda Walsh's dialogue and the two actors, and they are all up to it. It works, giving some context to the otherwise intensely focused story we are shown. It is even-handed, too: the murder of the prison guard while visiting his senile mother in a nursing home is perhaps the most brutal moment in the film. The final moments escape briefly into visual beauty before returning us to the cold, terrible reality of Sands physical collapse and death. Somehow it is too beautiful and exact to be depressing. The control and focus and austerity is reminiscent of Bresson, but the emotion evoked is much rawer than anything in his work. Its severity and formal precision makes most films about the Troubles (including Terry George's solid Some Mother's Son, also concerned with the Hunger strikers) look like contrived Hollywood piffle. McQueen looks a massive talent.