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Superlative Historical Drama

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A remarkably self-assured feature film debut by award-winning, multimedia artist Steve McQueen Hunger explores, often in devastating detail, the events leading up to and around the 1981 hunger strike conducted by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to both protest conditions at the notorious Maze Prison in Belfast, Ireland, and fight for the “political prisoner” status denied them by the British government.

McQueen and his collaborators, his co-writer, Irish playwright Enda Walsh, and actor Michael Fassbender, have crafted the rare art-film that’s both intellectually engaging and emotionally moving. A film that rejects violence, even for the greater good, while simultaneously celebrating self-sacrifice, ideas that retain contemporary relevance (e.g., Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay). Unsurprisingly, Hunger won the Caméra d'Or award given to first-time filmmakers last year at the Cannes Film Festival.

With almost clinical precision and a dispassionate rigor reminiscent of French filmmaker Robert Bresson, McQueen first follows a prison guard, Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham), as he readies himself for another day at the H-Block in the Maze Prison. His preparations include looking for suspicious behavior when he exits his modest house and checking under his car for bombs. In what becomes a ritual McQueen shows several times, Lohan washes his bruised, bloodied knuckles in a bathroom sink, then steps outside for a cigarette as snow falls. With little or no dialogue, McQueen clues us in to the psychological cost to the prison guards, without justifying or excusing their brutal, dehumanizing behavior toward the IRA prisoners.

Hunger then switches focus to Davey (Brian Milligan), a new arrival to the prison. An IRA member, Davey refuses to wear a prison uniform. For his refusal, he’s declared a “non-conforming prisoner” and forced to remove his clothes. Given only a blanket, he’s escorted to his jail cell, where he meets another protestor, Gerry (Liam McMahon). Longhaired and bearded, Gerry’s taken the “blanket” and “wash” protest to an extreme, smearing his jail cell with his feces. As Davey adjusts to the rituals and rhythms of prison life at the Maze, including brutal treatment by the guards and passing messages to other prisoners and the outside world, the focus shifts again, this time to the nominal leader of the protesters, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), as he contemplates a hunger strike to compel the British government to grant the IRA prisoners political status.

Hunger pivots on what used to be called a “sequence shot,” an uninterrupted, 17-minute take between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), a Catholic priest and IRA sympathizer sent to the prison to dissuade Sands from what the IRA’s leaders see as a risky exercise in self-martyrdom. At first, the two men share seemingly trivial information about their backgrounds, but the conversation inevitably turns on ends and means, as well as the ideological, historical, cultural, and spiritual consequences of Sands’ decision to lead a hunger strike that will lead to his slow death by starvation. It’s a tour-de-force, both for Fassbender and Cunningham’s performances and for the break with the scenes that led up to their dialogue. It’s even more striking due to the minimal dialogue that precedes and follows this key scene.

McQueen subsequently trains his camera on Sands gradual, increasingly painful dissolution. Fassbender went on a medically controlled diet to approximate Sands’ emaciated state. To see Fassbender in those final scenes is to see both extremism and self-sacrifice, a self-sacrifice and self-martyrdom for ideals reflected both in political ideology and in Christianity itself. McQueen, however, leaves it up to moviegoers to decide whether Sands’ decision (and the men who followed his lead and went on hunger strikes of their own) was ethically or morally correct, but just as he lets us see the British at their worst, he lets us see the British, if not at their best, then at their most compassionate: it’s in Sands’ last weeks and days that he’s treated with the dignity and respect denied as an IRA prisoner.