Hunger is not a film to be enjoyed, but to be appreciated…for its artistic merit and for its unflinching portrayal of a period in relatively recent history. It is primarily the story of Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), one of the Irish Republican Army members imprisoned in the late 1970’s in Northern Ireland for “political terrorism” (a divisive and debated term in and of itself ~ Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed there was no such thing as political terrorism, only criminal terrorism). In 1981, Sands led a hunger strike in protest of the British Government’s refusal (under Thatcher’s rule) to grant the IRA prisoners political status as well as of its failure to acknowledge the prisoners’ requests for more humane prison conditions.
Hunger is British visual artist Steve McQueen’s (not to be confused with the actor Steve McQueen) directorial debut. (McQueen teamed again with Fassbender for last year’s Shame.) He does a strikingly effective job of portraying the inhumane and brutal conditions that existed within the infamous Maze prison in Belfast, as well the ways in which both the prisoners and those working within the prison were effected by the politically-sparked unrest. It is harrowing to watch…yet, at the same time, McQueen has his supremely artistic eye on exhibit in every single frame of the film. It is a wonder to behold…you could quite honestly hit the pause button at any moment in the entire movie and see a work of art. That he is able to make feces smeared on prison cell walls look like a painting is a revelation.
McQueen is masterful at putting you THERE, through a sort of naturalistic audio-visual language. He uses virtually NO soundtrack in the film, other than the organic sounds within a scene. The long silences speak volumes (you feel the time ticking away in those lonely, cold prison cells); they also serve to create a marked contrast for the uncontrolled noise that erupts at other times, making it that much more jarring and unnerving when it does (such as the rhythmic thumping of the batons the prison officers use to beat the prisoners). There are many long, static shots in which we are simply observers of whatever “happens to happen” within the frame, which truly does seem to mimic being there. You can almost feel the chill and smell the stench of urine, feces and rotting food (which made me incredibly grateful I wasn’t there).
What’s more, the film is surprisingly bereft of dialogue, save for a stunning scene between Bobby and his priest that goes on uninterrupted without a single cut for nearly 22 minutes!! It is extraordinary…and riveting. McQueen makes the interesting choice of presenting the scene in a simple, fixed 2-shot of the actors (almost in silhouette) from a far enough distance that you are once again forced to be an observer, rather than a participator in the conversation, as is the case when the camera cuts back and forth between two people. I realize this is done in the theater all the time, but it is rarely seen on film. Fassbender and Liam Cunningham (as the priest) pull it off brilliantly. (So brilliantly that I watched it twice.)You may be wondering, given my love for him, how on earth I’ve managed to go this long without discussing Michael Fassbender at length. Never fear, the time has come. I must first acknowledge that every single actor in this film is pitch-perfect ~ as authentic and as good as it gets. And it couldn’t have been easy work for anyone on this film (it is tough stuff, in every sense of the word). BUT, no one comes close to matching what Fassbender does for and achieves in his depiction of Bobby Sands. His dedication and conviction as an actor is put on full ~ and devastating ~ display, particularly in the final third of the movie as Bobby begins his 66-day hunger strike. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, it is torturous to watch as Fassbender/Sands (how does one separate the two in this circumstance?!) literally wastes away before your very eyes. And of course, once again, McQueen does a remarkable job of putting you in the midst of the physical and mental/emotional decay. Sands’ experience of starvation and its effects becomes painfully tangible (to both Fassbender’s and McQueen’s credit). The vacancy in Fassbender’s piercing, and here gaunt and sunken, blue eyes as his character lies dying will haunt you long afterward. It is without a doubt one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever watched on film…almost too much to bear, but a testament to Michael’s performance that I saw it through. It is astonishing what Fassbender put himself through for this role.
Some might call it extreme, but I think it actually speaks to the greater questions this film poses: How does one develop the level of conviction it takes to so fully commit to something that you’re willing to risk your life for it? How does one determine what he/she is willing to die for? I neither condemn nor condone such a choice. I only hope I never have to make it.
Hunger is, I believe, a thought-provoking cinematic masterpiece, even if it is a heavy load to bear.