In 1976, the British government has withdrawn Special Category Status to IRA and INLA prisoners. In protest, the prisoners refused to wear uniform and instead went naked or wore only blankets. Two years later, this escalated to the “dirty protest”: prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement. In October 1980, seven prisoners took part in a hunger strike that lasted fifty-three days before being called off. However, in February of the following year, the prisoners announced another hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender)...
Hunger is the first feature film directed by Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen. Visual artists have a spotty track record when it comes to filmmaking: I would suggest that Julian Schnabel, for example, took until his third film to find his feet as a director. All the more reason to applaud McQueen, as Hunger is impressive indeed.
The hunger strike has been depicted on film more than once before, notably in 1996's Some Mother's Son. However, Hunger manages to make us look at the events afresh. McQueen's visual and narrative strategies derive more from European arthouse cinema than mainstream Hollywood. The film begins with a look at prison officer (Stuart Graham). In a series of short scenes, almost all without dialogue, we have a picture of his day-to-day life. He washes, dresses, has breakfast, drives to work...which is the notorious H Block. Later we see him washing blood off his hands, after beating a prisoner. Then we see a new prisoner, Gerry (Liam McMahon) being brought into the prisoner. Sands makes his first appearance half an hour in.
For most of the film, there is little dialogue, and much of it is incidental, as much part of the effective sound design as Leo Abrahams's and David Holmes's score and the sound effects. McQueen's talent for visual storytelling is undoubted, even if what he makes us look at is repellent. Squeamish viewers should be advised that the film does not spare us the details of what prolonged starvation does to the human body. Fassbender went on a medically-controlled diet to portray the increasingly emaciated Sands, but all the cast are convincing.
However, at the film's halfway point, a priest (Liam Cunningham) visits Sands in jail and tries to persuade him to call off the hunger strike. This sequence begins with one long take, seventeen minutes long, with the two men's faces in profile with the light behind them, the camera static. It's a tour de force, as much of acting as it is of direction, and it makes clear where the film's heart lies. There is brutality and closed-mindedness on both sides, but violence – to oneself as much as to others – achieves nothing. Hunger is one of the films of the year.