Film review: Hunger (2008), directed by Steve McQueen
Hunger is about a man who starved himself to death in a prison in 1981. If we widen the frame a bit, it’s a film about the true story of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who went on hunger strike in order for himself and his comrades in arms to be classed as political prisoners, and who died for that cause.
That’s why I was very surprised when it took about half an hour before we’re even introduced to a shaggy-looking Michael Fassbender. Instead, we begin with following a prison guard (Stuart Graham) on his way to work – checking his car for bombs, and so on, and how a young IRA man, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) is admitted to prison and gets to share a stinking cell with another IRA man, Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), who decorates the cell walls with his own faeces as a protest – the prisoners are on a no wash, no clothes protest, which is completely ignored by Thatcher and her chums in Westminster.
And then, half an hour in, the star of the piece, Bobby Sands (Fassbender).
Hunger is not an easy watch by any stretch of the imagination. If you’re an empathic person, you will suffer – goodness knows I did. While some sequences can’t be seen as anything but arty (the prison guard cleaning the corridor, or Davey and his bee by the window, for instance), it’s still not a film I could turn away from.
The acting is incredible. There’s a sequence where Sands talks to a priest (Liam Cunningham) about his intention to go on a hunger strike, and this lasts for a good ten minutes – same angle, no cuts. Just the two of them, talking at a table in prison. How many takes did that take to film before they nailed it? I wanted to get up off the sofa and applaud them both at the end of it. Truly extraordinary! – Okay, I just looked it up, it’s actually 17 minutes long (!), and is the longest single shot in a mainstream film too (at the time of writing), apparently.
Another great thing about it is that it doesn’t really take sides, as such. The prison guards might be portrayed as brutal monsters, but on the other hand, we also see them as a husband, as a son visiting his elderly mother in a nursing home, and as a scared man who only acts out of fear. The prisoners are partly portrayed as nothing but grotesque animals (although animals don’t normally decorate their homes with poo, to be fair), but also as men who are very passionate about their political cause, as well as that of being sons and lovers. You don’t get a clear-cut sense of who are the real bad guys and who are the real good guys, because both sides are full of grey areas, and both sides are really brutal.
The actual hunger strike doesn’t happen until very late in the film – I expected that to kind of the the plot of the film: Sands goes on a hunger strike in the beginning, and it ends with him dying. All of that happen in the last half hour or so, if that, and it’s truly harrowing to see how a hunger strike destroys a man’s body.
Hunger was showered in various awards, and rightly so. It’s an intense experience to watch it, and it’s grim, brutal and will turn your stomach. The worst part of it is that it’s true. In total, the strike took seven months, during which ten men died (Sands being the first) before it was called off and the British government agreed to most of the prisoners terms, yet still without granting them political status. We can only be thankful that things have moved on since then, and hope that the situation (which is still brewing, even if it’s been very quiet since September 11) will reach a less violent conclusion.
While deeply uncomfortable to watch, it’s a superb movie with world class acting, and it’s a side of the Irish struggle I’m less familiar with than that of the original (1920s) IRA, but it’s a good, not to mention scary, history lesson.
Hunger is not for the faint-hearted or squeamish, and you will see more of Fassbender than you ever thought possible. Not in any sexy kind of way, mind. Those images are in no way arousing.
5 out of 5 gruesome cavity searches I’d rather forget.