Dir: Steve McQueen, 2008. Starring: Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon, Michael Fassbender. Drama.

Hunger is Steve McQueen's unforgettable dramatization of a volatile period in Irish and British history. If we can apply all the factions of war to the individuals involved, then we can and should call it as such –though the common man is seldom able to dictate history. The key battleground where it was waged was the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The leader of the opposition was Bobby Sands, whose written words shortly before his death, “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world,” rang true for the members of Irish Republican Army. Dozens of IRA soldiers, unkempt and uniform in misery, withstood years of imprisonment and torture whilst those on the outside continued efforts to have the entity recognized as a political one –thus rendering those taken in as political prisoners instead of the terrorists they were publicly deemed.

McQueen's political sympathies are quite clear in the film, and his background in contemporary art is not only blatant in the work, but recognized in moments of ethereal beauty. Narratively, the film is not of the norm in terms of the characters we follow and the amount of time dedicated to each. In fact Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) hardly appears in the film until the final 3rd of it. It opens by following the daily routines of Raymond (Stuart Graham), a prison official: icing his swollen knuckles after beating inmates, smoking, checking under his car for explosives planted by the IRA, sitting alone amongst bombastic colleagues at lunch break. One is never aware if he is coming undone or reeling in a sociopathic void. I don't think he even utters a word. His segment, and a brief glimpse later in the feature, are not necessarily a looking-glass in the supposed inner-conflict of those with the upper-hand, but they do offer a realistic vision in terms of the psychological turmoil that had to be a reality for at least some of the guards involved.

We then shift to Davey (Brian Milligan), the newest inmate at the prison. Though meek, he is not daft and quickly assimilates to the prison while simultaneously upholding the smaller protests within, starting with the refusal to wear the uniform of a criminal. Following Davey is like being a fly on the wall when an animal is on a conveyor belt to be slaughtered, only he's being taken to a different kind of torment. Wearing only a blanket, Davey is taken to his cell where a fellow inmate waits crouching, surrounded by his own excrement on the walls; another kind of protest. Visiting time is not only a time to assure loved ones that they aren't falling apart, but to smuggle notes and other comforts—usually in a variety of orifices. The final protest, to not bath or shave, is met with the maximum of brutality.

Finally we come to Sands' segment, in which the viewer becomes aware that they've been waiting for him. McQueen, perhaps due to his respect and on-going use of Fassbender, does take us through a sort of unveiling of Sands by stabilizing him as a leader and contextualizing his relationship with the other inmates. It also marks the film's oddly placed climax: Sands' final confession to Father Dominic Moran (Liam McMahon), where he informs the priest that he is initiating a hunger strike. I say it is the climax of the film simply because the pace of the work is excruciatingly slow, though necessary to allow the horror to affect you. We seldom hear more than a few words exchanged and a moderate amount of screams and shouts, so the confession not only grants a moment of peace but it also allows the viewer to hear a rendition of history with a fervor that cannot be experienced via a book. Perhaps not even from the journal Sands kept for the first few days of the strike that eventually was his demise.

For many reasons, Hunger is not your typical re-telling of a point in time. Every role, however minute, is exercised with grace and bravery throughout the film, and Fassbender's dedication to the role was also evident by his actions; he lost over 30 pounds in order to enhance the film's visceral impact. As mentioned before, the film has a pace that adds a very unsettling quality, but also a bit of tranquility. McQueen constructed a poetic fever dream by giving close detail to aperture, framing, focus and camera placement. One is aware that his artistic merits are not restricted to moving images, and thankful—since it is all too easy to tell a tale using a lot of unconfounded words and supposed confrontations. Here, the pathos is made tangible by the view. I respect McQueen most for this, as it does not assume what cannot be assumed. It can be felt, though. And if you've yet to see a film where subtleties speak volumes, then Hunger comes highly recommended—as does a little bit of homework on the IRA, Margaret Thatcher's government and the issues raised in the film, all of which are still frighteningly relevant today.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 6, 2015 2:49pm
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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