Hunger is the debut film from Steve McQueen who subsequently ruffled feathers and opened eyes with his second film Shame. Hunger is perhaps more controversial and certainly more harrowing than its follow up but no less great. It depicts the final few months in the life of famous IRA prisoner Booby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who died on hunger strike in Maze Prison in 1981. The film is a stark and sparse piece which provides little entertainment. It’s one of the most shocking films I’ve seen in recent months and is yet another example of cinema making me feel shitty about being British.
The film takes its time to introduce its central character and opens instead with a Prison Officer before taking us inside the cell of a newly incarcerated IRA prisoner who we follow through several months of a ‘no wash-blanket’ strike in which IRA prisoners who are being denied political status for their crimes, refuse to wash, shave or wear prison uniforms. The conditions inside the cells are enough to churn your stomach as you witness two men in cramped conditions, smearing faeces over their walls in protest. Their treatment at the hands of the guards is equally shocking and terrifying. When I watch films about the holocaust I find it hard to believe that those events happened, never mind so recently and while the stories depicted in Hunger are in no way as severe, I had a similar reaction to them. How could something like this have happened so recently, and in my own country no less?
It’s unsurprising that in the aftermath of Bobby Sands death in 1981 that the IRA experienced a huge recruitment surge. I’m English and have no strong opinions on Northern Ireland and almost felt like joining up myself after watching this film. It’s a film that makes you think and puts you in the minds of its characters, helping you to understand their views and why they are doing what they are doing. There is a tremendous scene around half way through the movie in which Sands sits down with a Priest (Liam Cunningham) to discuss ‘the troubles’, life, politics and the idea of the hunger strike. The scene is like nothing else I’ve ever seen and runs unbroken for 17 minutes with a single unmoving camera capturing the dialogue. It’s a bold decision for a film produced in the time of fast cutting, multi camera, CGI films but the depth and subject matter of the dialogue, as well as the performances make it as watchable as anything mainstream Hollywood is capable of producing and much more arresting and emotive.
The long single take is the polar opposite of earlier scenes in which very little dialogue is spoken for large chunks of the film. Inside the cells, life is mostly quiet and still, albeit for the shit smeared walls and occasional plotting. This itself works against the scenes outside the cells in which the prisoners are forcibly shaved, sheared and washed while routinely beaten. The film manages to create scenes of absolute stillness alongside chaos and finds a balance between the two which is unflinching. Hunger is the sort of film which will stay with you for a long time.
Towards the latter stages we watch transfixed at seemingly impossible images of Fassbender’s withering body as he enters the final stages of life. The images are as shocking as anything you’re likely to see and I don’t know how he managed to become so thin without seriously damaging his internal organs. His performance is spell binding though and despite the grizzly images, I wasn’t able to take my eyes off the screen, in the same way that one is glued to twenty four hour rolling news coverage of a stand off between police and outlaws. You know what you’re going to see won’t be pretty but you can’t help but watch.
Hunger is a difficult film to put into words but it is the sort of film which will affect its audience. You won’t leave the film with a smile on your face and both my girlfriend and I saw for a few moments in stony silence as the credits rolled. It’s deeply shocking and unflinchingly honest in its depictions of life inside Maze Prison and like so many other films which shock, it throws light on a topic which many people have heard of but few truly know about or understand. It’s a difficult watch but something that should be seen.
- To perfect the 17 minute scene mentioned above, Liam Cunningham briefly moved in with Fassbender so the two could practice the scene up to fifteen times a day.
- The movie won the Camera d'Or at Cannes.
- Fassbender's crash diet was medically monitored but no less shocking for it.