They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions — pity — as a means of creating tension and stroking the fires of bitterness and hatred.
— Margaret Thatcher, 28 May 1981
At the center of Hunger is a conversation. In the Maze Prison, inmate Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) meets with Father Moran (Liam Cunningham). Smoking cigarettes, seated across from one another at a flimsy table in an otherwise empty room, they discuss Bobby’s current course of action. It’s 1981, and he and other prisoners are engaged in hunger strike, protesting conditions in H-Block 5: “Brutality, humiliation, our basic human rights taken away from us,” he says. The father laments their choice to starve. “Have you thought about what you’re going to be putting these boys through?” he asks. “You’re going head to head with a British government that clearly despises republicanism, that can easily live with the deaths of what they call ‘terrorists.’ The stakes are much higher this time. And if you’re not willing to negotiate, you’re looking for them to capitulate.”
Bobby insists his course is just and his end will be justified, that “We can behave like the army we proclaim to be and lay down our lives for our comrades.” Moran leans forward: “For soldiers, it’s all about the freedom, but you no longer know what a life is, you men.” Four years of imprisonment under the direst conditions — including the recent blanket protest, in which the men refused to wear clothes because they were denied the right of political prisoners not to wear prison uniforms — have warped their priorities. “There’s nothing normal about you,” Moran observes, “Right now the republican movement has talked itself into a corner.” For Bobby, though, that corner is his life, “a real life, not some theological exercise, not some religious trip that’s got fuck-all to do with living.” In fact, he concludes, those still outside, churchgoers and believers, need him. “You need the revolutionary, you need the cultural political soldier, to give life a pulse.”
It’s a heady and lengthy exchange, a gutsy interlude in a complex film, laying out the intricate layers of rationale and belief that shaped and were shaped by the Troubles (Na Trioblóidí), the decades of violent conflict between Northern Ireland’s nationalists and unionists, exacerbated by the British Army’s occupation (as the republicans saw it). Rising to the top of these layers here is the concept of self-sacrifice, in particular what it means and to whom. As Sands puts it, the cause needs martyrs, points of emotional and spiritual light, as the opposition forces remain darkly intransigent. For Moran, this assumption of suffering — and especially, the imposition and expectation that others will suffer, from fellow hunger strikers to their families — is self-defeating. “Right thing” or not, the slow wasting deaths cannot achieve the desired end, life will not be given a pulse. Still, Bobby insists, “I will not stand by and do nothing.”
And yet, as Hunger shows, this is pretty much what the hunger strike involves, at a physical level, doing nothing — with political purpose and moral conviction. (Sands died 5 May 1981, following 66 days of starving.) It attends as well to the moral dilemmas facing Ulster Protestant prison guard Ray (Stuart Graham), himself and other guards the potential targets of an IRA assassination campaign (16 were killed during the period of the hunger strikes), and IRA soldier Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) whose induction into the prison takes up several early minutes. Assigned to a cell with Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), Gillen is a kind of guide for the rest of us, as he learns what’s expected of him, daily and ideologically: beaten on his arrival when he refuses to wear his uniform, Gillen subsequently performs the many hurts of incarceration, masturbating, sucking up teeny-wadded messages from a visitor’s kiss, being dragged and bloodied repeatedly by guards who seem to have no other purpose but abject boredom.
Still, the film’s focus is emphatically the death of Bobby Sands, specifically, what happens to his body, viewed from a tragic outside and, to an imaginative extent, a determined inside. His resolve emerges in a political and emotional context, though this is barely sketched in this evocative, brilliantly impressionistic film. Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncements punctuate the soundtrack (“There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence, there is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence”), framing both the H-Block protest and Ray’s frustrations. Both “sides” are rendered in bodily pains, Ray’s bloody knuckles, appearing in close-up as he contemplates their meaning, as well as Sands’ own depletion. The last third of the film is deeply focused on this process, the gradual loss of flesh and energy, the oppressive stillness and the mix of fear and exhaustion.
Intensive close-ups translate these sensual images into emotional effects. As doctors describe for his mother the possibility of cardiac failure and “the degenerative changes to internal organs,” Sands sinks into his bed, his bony pale body seemingly caving in on itself. A point of view camera suggests his blurring vision, his attempts to concentrate on spots on the wall or ceiling. Voices come at him as echoey distortions, muffled sounds receding into thick soundless space. He stands, collapses, his brother touches his hand but he can’t respond. At last his body is so frail that a nurse erects a frame around him to hold the blanket meant to cover him, now too heavy for his skin, covered with weepy sores, to bear.
That Hunger envisions for Bobby at long last an almost way out, a flashback to his youthful career as a runner for his school in Belfast, making his way through trees and along a muddy creekbed, isn’t quite escape. He’s remembering a story he’s told Moran, when he felt compelled to do another right thing, to put a “wee foal” out of its misery, even if he had to take punishment from Protestant competitors to do so. Confirmed again in his sense of self and commitment to a cause, Bobby can leave his body behind, amid a memory of pain, mercy, and impossible choices. Viewers of Hunger, however, will not soon forget that body.