Steve McQueen nourishes cinema with an exceptional debut.

Bloody knuckles clenched in scalding water. Cigarette smoke drifting through snowflakes. Rivers of urine scraped down a stone corridor. Shit-swirls smeared on the walls.

Sights, sounds and senses are what give Hunger its incredible visceral impact, as artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s audacious debut slams us in headfirst.

At the Maze prison, circa 1982, IRA prisoners are attempting to force the Thatcher government to grant them status as political prisoners, not terrorists...

Trembling silences, brutal violence - both arrive in Hunger with a harrowing sensory immediacy that shuts out any political or historical framing. Never losing control of the poetry and purpose in his arty rigour, director Steve McQueen gives us a prison guard as a guide through the infernal daily cycle of paranoia, ragged beatings and naked bodies, before introducing us to 27-year-old detainee Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender).

Near wordless ’til the halfway mark, the film stops dead for its single, gripping scene of dialogue: an unforgettable 20-minute shot in which a chain-smoking Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) tries to convince Sands to abort his hunger strike.

He fails. Silence resumes, and Fassbender’s extraordinary performance takes hold. Charismatically laying his case on the table, the actor reveals a shocking real-life emaciation as Sands starves to death, slipping towards agonised martyrdom as fried breakfasts and cups of hot coffee steam away beside his bed.

Stark, stylish and immersive, McQueen’s film is often hard to watch and constantly riveting. Few filmmakers have made such an extraordinary debut movie in recent years.

More importantly though, think of the last time a British director uncorked anything this artful or ambitious.

Jonathan Crocker

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