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Herald rating: * * * * *

Verdict: Gruelling but brilliant based-on-fact prison drama.

Short, hard, brutal, cold and brilliant, this film, by a Turner Prize-winning artist whose movies are usually seen in art galleries, focuses on the 66-day, ultimately fatal 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands. He was the first of 10 to die in support of demands that republican prisoners be classified as political, rather than criminal.

Adjudged best first film at Cannes last year, it has attracted the accusation that it romanticises ruthless murderers, a charge against which it's readily defended, it seems to me: it includes telling scenes, such as the killing of a prison guard as he visits his mum in a rest home, that make it plain there are no good guys in this story; and, notwithstanding the flashes of crucifixion symbolism in the last stanzas, it does not seek to glorify Sands' slow suicide.

What it does do is confront, with an unflinching gaze, the reality of the experience. It does that in part by being about more than Sands (Fassbender), who doesn't put in an appearance until the film's midpoint: it takes in the worlds of a prison guard (Graham), by turns crushed and crazed with rage and fear, and of newcomer prisoners (Milligan and McMahon), who induct us into the horrors of prison life.

And even when Sands moves into centre frame,

the film is as much about form as content: the most remarkable scene, a mesmerising 18-minute medium shot scripted by playwright Enda Walsh, in which Sands argues with a hard-bitten priest (Cunningham) about whether his proposed suicide is pointless, is an exhilarating piece of work, more about memory and the meaning of existence and the nature of being human than it is about ideology.

This is not an easy watch. There are sequences of brutality as tough as anything I've seen in a non-documentary film and other sequences - a single shot, lasting several minutes, in which a guard sluices piss from a corridor - show us that this is less a movie than a work of art in which film, rather than, say, oil paint or clay, is the medium.

But it's sure to be one of the most striking experiences you will have in a cinema this year.

Peter Calder

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon

Director: Steve McQueen

Running time: 88 mins

Rating: R16 (contains nudity and content that may disturb).

Screening: Academy

- NZ Herald

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