Making a film about legendary IRA prisoner Bobby Sands is no easy task to take upon, but English artist Steve McQueen’s approach is nothing short of riveting. Starring Michael Fassbender of recent Inglourious Basterds fame as Sands, Hunger is a meditative symphony of human struggle and resilience. Faith, whether it be in regards to religion or political belief, is put to the test using the body as a metaphor for a site of contestation. McQueen’s contemplative filmmaking evokes an empathy that for some might be offensive to their politics, but for most audiences reveals the startling lengths people will go to prove their convictions.
For a feature film debut, McQueen is self-assured in his direction, and wrote the screenplay with Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Commissioned by Channel 4 and Film4, the film benefits from not having the pressure to conform to any Hollywood standard of what a political story should feel like. True to the real events, it does not try to dress up the cruelties and violence that were acted on the Maze prisoners. Fortunately, this is not a simple biopic used to deify a historical figure, but rather an attempt to capture the mood and events surrounding the 1981 hunger strike by Irish Republican prisoners attempting to regain political status.
The film begins with the routines of two different perspectives, prison officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), and Davey (Brian Milligan), a new IRA prisoner at Maze. For Raymond, his daily rituals include searching for bombs underneath his car, dealing with the solitary and cold lifestyle of a prison officer who regularly beats prisoners, and having little to say to his colleagues. After being labeled a “non-conforming prisoner” and forced to strip naked, Davey arrives at his prison cell. The camera addresses both perspectives with a calm and casual pace, which lets us infer that this is a typical environment these prisoners and officers who are pitted against each other.
At this point the prisoners are engaged in a no wash protest, refusing to shave or bathe, and smearing the walls of their cell with feces. If that’s not dedication to your cause, then I don’t know what is. We see the prisoners as they go through everything, whether it’s sexual frustration, disgusting living conditions, or harsh treatment by prison officers. We come with the prisoners as they talk in the visitor room with friends and family, and see the lengths they must go to retain their sanity in such an inhuman atmosphere. The lack of dramatic pacing may be jarring for some, considering the horrific acts that punctuate minutes of lingering shots, but it is all done in the spirit of realism.
During a scene in which the officers are forcibly bathing and cutting the hair of prisoners in a brutal fashion, we finally come upon Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who resists by spitting in Raymond’s face, only to be beaten and forcibly bathed in response. Fassbender gives a performance that was completely overlooked during awards season; unfortunate considering the depths he went to achieve physical and emotional realism.
His best moment is the 17-minute single shot between Sands and a priest played by Liam Cunningham. The two actors had lived with one another for a few days, practicing the extended dialog for hours on end. The longest shot in a mainstream film is also one of the most thematically rich scenes in the film, where the priest tries to persuade Sands from going on with a hunger strike which will inevitably kill him and many other prisoners. Sands likens his devotion to the cause to an inherent feeling in him which dictates his sacrifice.
The last act of the film focuses on the hunger strike taken upon Sands, and the deteriorating effects it has on his body. This is harrowing stuff to watch, and a lot of viewers might have trouble stomaching the pain that Sands has to withstand. That seems to be the point of the film, trying to give the viewers a look at what drives those who sacrifice. Hunger stops short of drawing comparisons between Sands and any other known martyrs (hint hint), and treats the material with a great deal of respect. The film’s closing scenes make for a painfully difficult experience, because you already know there won’t be a happy ending, and yet you still pull for Sands in his weakest moments.
As usual, Criterion does another great job with its release of Hunger. The digital transfer looks great for a DVD release, and the surround sound really makes you feel like you’re in the prison with them. Bonus features gathered for the disc include video interviews with McQueen and Fassbender, a short documentary on the making of the film, and a 1981 episode of a BBC program about the Maze prison hunger strikes. All of these bonuses help enrich an already deep film, giving viewers greater context for the film and a bit of historical background for those that might not be aware of the political history of Britain.
Hunger is a challenge to watch, and at the end of it you won’t come away feeling any sort of relief. The experience is rewarding, however, because it dares to go where other films won’t, and McQueen’s respectful eye fully immerses you in the tragic story. By exploring the plight of these IRA prisoners, McQueen has created a film about faith and devotion. Except this is not regarding religion, but rather the devotion to voice and cause, and the mystifying lengths people will go to defend them.