With truly incredible, gut-wrenching artistry, director/co-writer Steve McQueen (along with Edna Walsh) has brought Bobby Sands’ principled battle with iron-will authority back into our collective stream of consciousness even as subsequent “Wars on Terror” (Sands died in 1981) continue to pit might against fright—frequently masked as theatres of war.
Not surprisingly and refreshingly welcome, McQueen’s film is a visual tour de force, flooding the screen with stunning imagery (a mural of shit adorns the squalid prison-cell wall; never-ending streams of piss diverted by the inmates are first disinfected then swept back by a long-suffering guard decked out in tall rubber boots and a face mask; a squadron of riot police summoned to brutally quell the last uprising sports gear that wouldn’t be out of place in the Droogs wardrobe from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange—the subsequent juxtaposition of vicious anal penetration and a baby-faced warrior crying in disgust at both the act and himself is unforgettable).
As the captured leader of men, Michael Fassbender delivers a bravura performance that most certainly put his own health in jeopardy. The initially muscular, well-proportioned actor shed many of his own pounds, keeping the need for withering flesh façade shots to the bare minimum. His journey from rabble rouser (along with his equally courageous “criminals” Liam McMahon and Brian Milligan) to rebel with a singular cause is largely seen and not heard.
The notable exception being the extended interview with Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham hits just the right tone of moral indignation and envy), which, happily, breaks the long-held cardinal rule that the screen must change its visual point of view at least once every thirty seconds. This carefully framed long shot holds the most dialogue of the entire production. The two men smoke real cigarettes (using bible pages for cigarette paper is the standard for the Catholic political detainees). Curiously, Father Dom steals Sands’ thunder by bemoaning his own fate as a journeyman vicar even as his much younger brother—also a priest—has landed a plush—safe—position thanks to his shameless lobbying of their Bishop.
Of course, that narrative diversion serves to further set the stage for a heated discussion as Sands reveals his hunger-strike strategy (rather than all go at once, every two weeks a new inmate will volunteer to forego nourishment until victory is achieved in heaven or on earth). For a brief moment, the script flirts with thematic overkill as Sands recounts his first taste of leadership while competing in a cross-country (in more ways than one: the boys from Belfast travelled south to take on their largely Protestant peers) foot race. Knowingly, after some thoughtful close-ups, the chastened soul-saver is heard but not seen leaving the prison. This seemingly small touch most effectively demonstrates McQueen’s savvy sense of mood and moment.
From there—with few details spared: the squeamish will have to look away—the deliberate wasting away of one human being is passionately chronicled and shared. In the end, Sands did win the right to wear his own clothes (pyjamas brought regularly by his stoic parents), was elected to Parliament but never got to take his place in the house that democracy built one armed conflict at a time.
With clips of Margaret Thatcher vowing to never yield, and a brutal—even if warranted—brazen assassination of a guard (Stuart Graham, who, like Lady Macbeth, couldn’t wash away his own bloody deeds) to balance the actions of opposing sides, it fell once again to the Pope’s disciple to utter the thought du jour—equally apt both then and now: “The Church loves a reformed crook.”
Hungering for the truth is never easy. JWR