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Extreme measures

An IRA prisoner takes defiance to the limit in the film Hunger.

An IRA prisoner takes defiance to the limit in the film Hunger

Irish republican Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) goes on a hunger strike at Maze prison in 1980s Northern Ireland in Steve McQueen's film Hunger. ((Maple Pictures))

The body breaks and the body is beaten and the body weeps. Flesh is the commonality between enemies in Hunger, a disturbing and (perhaps wrongly) beautiful film about Irish Republican Army prisoners in 1981.

British director Steve McQueen is best known as a video artist, and his first language is visual. There are few words in Hunger (but when they arrive, it’s by storm), and the story is told through tableau upon tableau of stark, sombre imagery. I’ve seen it twice now, and the second time, I felt like I had discovered extra pages in a glossy art book I thought I knew — so riveting was each quiet, perfectly placed moment.

Whether aestheticizing brutality and history is a good thing — or a moral thing — is open to debate. Does a tender, lingering image of a thuggish prison guard smoking a cigarette against a white wall in the snow serve as an example of clever juxtaposition, or does it grossly miss the point? While you’re deciding, Hunger will work you over. It’s a startling and haunting experience, which may be enough.

The film is a triptych of sorts, or three ways of looking at the same situation. In the legendary Maze prison in Northern Ireland, republican prisoners are undertaking "blanket" and "no-wash" protests, refusing prison garb and any modicum of hygiene. Their aim is to convince the British government to change their status from criminals to political prisoners. McQueen appears only vaguely interested in whether they deserve this distinction, or even why they’re in prison in the first place; hence, the film has infuriated some. Working from a script with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, McQueen instead charts with his camera the small bursts of humanity — and its violent opposite — that occur under these powder-keg conditions.

When new prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) signs in for the first time, he doesn’t break out the heroic movie speechifying, but nervously refuses to wear the jail uniform. Everyone has a role to fulfill, so the guard blandly marks in his book: "Non-conforming prisoner." Gillen is thrown in a shared cell that looks like the inside of Francis Bacon’s brain: walls smeared with excrement, maggots marching through piles of discarded food. One day, Gillen reaches a few fingers through the broken window for a bit of air, and finds the touch of a fly. He practically swoons.

As the beards grow and the days pass, information travels between the men inventively, and always through the body. Orifices are stuffed with plastic-wrapped notes; a radio comes out of one woman’s underwear and into her imprisoned boyfriend’s. A visiting baby harbours information in a snowsuit. At mass, the men kiss and objects move from mouth to mouth.

Father Moran (Liam Cunningham, right) and Bobby Sands debate the morality of the prisoner hunger strike in Hunger. ((Maple Pictures))

Still, the jail wins. The aforementioned smoking police officer must frequently cool his bloodied knuckles in a white sink of water. He uses those hands for arbitrary beatings, and, more strangely, washings. The officers brutally cut the hair of men whose only power is the ability to make themselves filthy. As their bodies are unwillingly cleaned — which means being beaten and thrown into a bath, then scraped at with a push-broom — the men are sapped of agency yet again.

The centre of the film, literally and figuratively, is a conversation between now-mythic IRA figure Bobby Sands (the excellent Michael Fassbender) and a casual priest (played by Liam Cunningham). In what amounts to almost one continuous 14-minute shot, the two confess their yearning for the countryside, away from Belfast’s roiling "troubles." Sands’s subsequent announcement that he will hunger strike is met by the priest’s anger: has he entirely lost respect for life? Sands volleys back that he sees his own death as a way of galvanizing the next generation for the fight.

Sands may be clever and charming, but only the priest seems sensible, recognizing the limits of martyrdom. Sands was the first of 10 men to hunger strike to death at Maze, an abstract number that in Hunger becomes a moment-by-moment reality. Is the long, unceasing chronicle of Sands’ disintegration an act of hagiography? There is a wasted body, bedsores that weep like stigmata and McQueen’s penchant for bright, beatific lighting. But there is no glory in the death — only waste. Its futility is measured against the monotone of Thatcher’s voice on the radio, unyielding, but alive.

McQueen ferrets out moments of goodness: a doctor who finds a cage to put over Sands’ skeletal body to keep the bed sheets from chafing his onion-thin skin. The truth is in the details, like the sight of Sands’s father, checking in to the prison hospital room next to his dying son, placing his pajamas under the pillow. McQueen casts his sympathy wide, catching the prison janitor who sweeps away the urine that the prisoners have spilled into the hallways, and a young officer hiding around a corner, crying as his colleagues in riot gear beat a prisoner’s naked back with billy clubs.

In tackling one of the biggest subjects of recent history, McQueen has the courage to stay small. He flees from the constraints of the grandiose historical drama, loosing a series of images — extraordinary in their ordinariness — that remind us what it is to be human, and very much alive.

Hunger opens in Toronto on April 10, with other Canadian cities to follow.

Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.