Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham
Brutal and poignant in its dedication to the materialistic aspects of common humanity, Hunger reconfigures and reenergizes the formal potential of political filmmaking. Directed and co-written by installation artist and Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, the haunting depiction of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands’s last weeks of life embraces its context without becoming a walking history textbook. With only a few major characters, one long, tensely-delivered dialogue scene, and moments of mundanity alongside moments of cruelty alongside moments of beauty, Hunger thrives by unflinchingly visualizing the cold reality of the Maze prison in 1981.
Intensely focused on each moment, McQueen’s film opens with the decontextualized daily morning routine of a man who turns out to be a prison guard (Graham), most harrowingly including his check for bombs underneath his car. A face in a mirror, bloodied knuckles, and shoving a uniform in a locker become, under the camera’s sure gaze, isolated events eventually crystallizing into a mosaic, beautiful on their own but disturbing in their building implications. Without knowing every facet of recent Irish political history, an audience member can still make the clearest distinctions between the violent and the violated, and how power is secretly fought by the powerless and how the powerful fight back. Every bit of calm is threatened by turmoil, and every burst of sadism is eventually met by a contemplative solemnity. Nothing is apolitical in these men’s lives, even if their fates are not officially recognized as such. Out of this alternately somber and dizzyingly aggressive maelstrom come Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and a priest (Cunningham) to debate whether Bobby should go through with his proposed hunger strike.
Their seventeen-minute long take conversation anchors and frames the film around it. While obeying the laws of exposition in detailing the political nuances of what will come after, the scene equally challenges and humanizes Sands as a person, as a leader, as a symbol for his cause. Depending on whether one agrees or not with Sands’s decision to hunger strike, his aggressively noble rationalizations may turn even a folly into a holy one. The unbrokenly shot conversation undoubtedly transcends its gimmick.
The remainder of the film is difficult to watch due to Sands’s minutely detailed physical suffering. As horrifying as the punishing blows and bloodletting of the movie’s first half, it makes it clear that Sands’s body as a vessel for his soul deteriorates rapidly even if that soul does not. Refusing food but unable to stand, Bobby remains defiant to the end. The body itself, in all its honorable, sad fragility as the final landscape for political dissent, takes center stage. The scenes still have a kind of unsentimental, clear-eyed beauty, and Fassbender’s performance makes the relatively superficial aspirations of, say, Christian Bale in The Machinist or even the men in Rescue Dawn, look practically immoral by comparison. In the end, a viewer must make up his or her own mind as to whether the subsequent results are adequately worth the agony endured, but Hunger’s unabashed politics aren’t about agreeing or disagreeing, it’s about recognizing a person’s ability to etch his protest inside and outside, for himself and for others.