Stark historical drama examines the details of one man’s death
Directed by Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham
Hunger—the new drama about noted IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands—begins, interestingly enough, with a man who is not Bobby Sands. He’s an ordinary family man, seemingly under a great deal of stress, getting ready for work. As it turns out, he’s a guard at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. It is at this prison that a number of Irish Republican Army “terrorists” are incarcerated—among them, the as-yet-undistinguished Bobby Sands. The film is in no real hurry to get where we know it’s going, but it does eventually cede the spotlight to Sands (played with Herculean commitment by Michael Fassbender). This is a movie about Sands—specifically the last six weeks of Sands’ life. It is not a movie about a prison guard. But he’s there at the beginning, one of the countless people who must have interacted with Sands before his premature death. He’s there because Hunger is interested in details, turning the smallest of gestures, actions and words into moments of soul-rattling import. When Sands and our unnamed prison guard do eventually cross paths (a situation that doesn’t come until quite a bit later in the film), the simple “punch line” of this supporting character hits with brutal intensity. In this one moment, we see that no single person is innocent, guilty, good or evil—but all are damned just the same.
That’s indicative of Hunger as a whole. It treats Sands’ background and the entire source of the Irish Catholic Republican/British Protestant Nationalist conflict as a given. If you don’t know anything about either, Hunger’s conceptual artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen isn’t concerned with enlightening you. That isn’t to say that even the most woefully uninformed won’t find a reason to appreciate Hunger. The film isn’t about the right or wrong side in that (semi) concluded conflict. It is about what happens when a principled person is locked up for what he believes to be unprincipled reasons.
In painfully realistic detail, McQueen chronicles the horrific conditions under which Sands and his fellow freedom fighters were imprisoned circa 1981. Was it the Margaret Thatcher-led British government that enforced these conditions, or did the the imprisoned IRA members create them? Did the so-called “Dirty Protest” call attention to prisoner woes, or did the prisoners simply make things untenable for themselves? Were these people innocent victims in an ongoing political struggle, or were they overeager martyrs too quick to throw themselves under the bus for a cause? Hunger doesn’t come down on one side or the other. Instead, it leaves the political debate for a later date.
Hunger is lensed in a number of unbroken, frequently dialogue-free shots. McQueen’s lingering camera forces audiences to focus their attentions on what’s happening (or not happening) on screen. This technique becomes glaringly apparent during the film’s longest sequence, an unedited, 17-minute conversation between Sands and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham). The priest is a realist and discusses Sands’ last-ditch effort to protest his imprisonment with a hunger strike in purely mortal terms. (No religious ideology here, either.) Successful or not, it still ends with Sands’ death. Sands, however, is unswayed. He knows he’s dying for a cause. It’s a stunning scene, certainly the best pure acting effort you’re likely to see this year, and it leads to the film’s inevitable coda.
Hunger doesn’t linger all that long on the corporal details of Sands’ hunger strike. That segment takes up perhaps a quarter of the film. Still, it’s a bleak slice of cinema done up in detached shades of white like some stark modern art painting. Fassbender throws himself body and soul (but mostly body) into the role, wasting away before our eyes in clinical detail. (There’s that word again.)
With its close-up focus on a singular time and place (neither of them particularly pleasant), Hunger is most likely to attract attention from those with a pre-existing knowledge of the story at hand. If you don’t know your way around The Troubles, you can still appreciate McQueen’s attention to tactile minutia and his patient, artistic sense of objectivity. Just be prepared for the whiplash changes between brutal violence and painful introspection. Obviously, Hunger isn’t going to qualify as the feel-good film of the summer. And in this case, forewarned is forearmed.
Hunger; Written and directed by Steve McQueen; Starring Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham; Unrated; Opens Friday, 6/12.