Posted December 3, 2008 in Film

Steve McQueen’s measured and excruciating portrait of Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, which held incarcerated IRA rebels from 1976-2000, is light on details and long on outrage. McQueen first introduces us to a soft-shouldered guard named Ray, a man you’d assume would be better suited to photocopiers than prisoners, whose role is to sit, eat a sandwich, and remind us that no struggle is ever as simple as good versus evil. In this jail, it’s the stubborn, vengeful and frightened versus the vengeful, frightened and stubborn. IRA fighter Davey (Brian Milligan) is booked into his cell. As instructed, he and cellmate Gerry (Liam McMahon) follow the party plan: refuse uniforms, refuse showers, and refuse chores, with the goal of distinguishing themselves as political prisoners, not criminals. (“There’s no such thing,” glowers Margaret Thatcher.) What follows is misery, both imposed upon and self-inflected. The Irish hunch naked, smear their walls with excrement, allow maggots to infest their quarters, and are subjected to brutish, occasionally fatal beatings from jumpy English guards who seem to live off adrenaline. Slowly, we register the presence of the cell block’s most famous inmate, Bobby Sands, who, desperate for change and public awareness declares a hunger strike. There’s nearly no dialogue—McQueen and Enda Walsh’s script saves its words for one still and conversation-heavy scene where a priest (Liam Cunningham) tries to convince Sands that certain suicide is the coward’s way out. That the film gives Sands the martyr treatment caused walkouts in Cannes (where the film later won the Caméra d’Or), but it includes just enough payback violence against men like Ray to insist that all pain is bad pain. (Amy Nicholson)



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