Steve McQueen’s second feature “Shame” is now on general release, so it’s perhaps a good time to rediscover “Hunger” (2008), his excellent first film, also starring Michael Fassbender. If you like your movies grim and bitterly real, look no further, “Hunger” will quench your thirst for gloom and throw you into the sordid atmosphere of HM Prison Maze in Northern Ireland in 1981.
Based on the true story of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), a member of the IRA condemned to 14 years of prison on shooting charges who decides to start off a hunger strike, the movie depicts the awful conditions the political convicts are subjected to and the tenacity they demonstrate as they fight for their dignity as prisoners. From the brief glimpses of the (almost as gloomy) outside world to Margaret Thatcher’s unyielding anti-terrorist voice-overs and Bobby Sands’ equally passionate pro-republican positions, considerations about the war in Northern Ireland permeate the whole film. Yet the real point seems to be more about showing how the IRA prisoners fought to the bitter end to defend their basic rights as human beings, sacrificing any form of comfort or small favours for the sake of these essential principles.
Prisons are rarely presented as an Eldorado in film, and rightly so, but in “Hunger”, to top it up, it’s the prisoners who decide to sacrifice their living conditions as a form of protest against a system that tortures them. Like in many other prison movies, the in-mates have come up with smart (yet rather scatological) methods of communicating with the outside world and have established a kind of hierarchy among the group. But because they don’t consider themselves as criminals, the prisoners here refuse to be treated as such. They won’t wear the typical prisoner uniform and prefer to wrap themselves up in a blanket (this was called the “Blanket Protest” in 1978). They systematically destroy the furniture in their cells and sleep directly on the floor, come rain come snow. They spread their own faeces onto their cell walls and urinate under the doorway to create a stream across the prison corridor (this was called the “Dirty Protest” at the time following the lack of response to the “ Blanket Protest”). Whenever they are in contact with prison guards, there is bound to be blood and violence, and the nakedness of the prisoners makes them seem all the more reckless. McQueen, who has experience filming or creating art around war themes (he was an official war artist in Iraq in 2006), knows too well there are no goodies and baddies in real life, which is why he never demonises the prison officers, showing them as more depressed, queasy and terrified creatures than the prisoners themselves. And that’s because unlike Bobby and his mates, the others don’t have a cause to fight for.
One of the most striking scenes in the film is a 20-minute long take where Bobby discusses with a local priest his upcoming plans to start a hunger strike (hence the film title!). That is, a proper one, since the previous attempt failed miserably owing to moral weakness among the group. It takes a bit of effort to decipher what they are on about thanks to their Northern Irish twang broken with cigarette puffs, but gives Bobby an opportunity to explain what he feels his cause is. In a film where dialogue is very scarce, the scene is all the more important than it portrays Bobby as a very brave and bright character who accepts being challenged but is too stubborn to take in the advice of a religious man. Following this 3-full-cigarette-long scene, where both Michael Fassbender and Rory Mullen are remarkable, the viewer witnesses the slow path that leads Bobby Sands to death through rather graphic scenes of the man’s body deterioration. Anyone who thought hunger strike was a soft form of suicide will reconsider after watching the gruesome pain Bobby seems to endure until his death. In a similar way to Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004), Michael Fassbender seems to have gone out of his way to look like a 6-stone corpse – making for a very uncomfortable viewing.
McQueen’s first movie is an amazing achievement, not only because of its very realistic and controversial material but also its mastered aesthetics – comparable to David Fincher’s dark atmospheres but more natural-looking. Acting by Michael Fassbender, but also by Brian Milligan as Davey Gillen and Liam McMahon as Gerry Campel is stunning. If you want to relive an episode of history where Thatcher became a little more unpopular – especially outside of the UK – watch “Hunger” now.