By 1981, after nearly a decade of violent conflict in Northern Ireland, Her Majesty's Prison Maze, outside Belfast, held a number of IRA prisoners. But locking up these men didn't stop the fighting on either side of the wall. Hunger depicts the events of that spring, when IRA member Bobby Sands organized a hunger strike that made headlines worldwide. It's the stuff of myth, bitter contention and still-raw emotions, yet Hunger is hardly the account you'd expect.
This is the debut feature of Steve McQueen, a young, award-winning British visual artist who works primarily with film. (McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Enda Walsh, the Irish playwright.) Hunger is neither bio-pic nor docu-drama. Historical facts are few, larger context even less so, and those without knowledge or (even fuzzy) memories of these long-ago, far-away complicated times may feel some frustration. McQueen clearly tilts more toward art than documentary, yet his work is no less powerful for it.
The 96-minute Hunger is divided into three distinct sections. The first, a series of often spare vignettes, establishes the ongoing tensions and casual brutality within Maze. The second is an almost theatrical presentation of Sands' motivations. And the third is a harrowing yet lyrical depiction of Sands' slow death.
The early segment establishes the perpetual cycle of distrust, confrontation and violence in the prison's H-block, much of it played out on the battleground of the body. The prisoners are on a blankets-and-no-wash action, refusing to wear clothes, and turning their cells into filthy pits of rotting food and smeared shit. They sport grotesque beards, visible reminders of their defiance. Thus, the guards beat them and forcibly shave them. But beards grow back, and so on.
It's the ultimate body-as-battleground that forms the both the literal and metaphorical heart of Hunger, when Sands, unseen to this point, kicks off the hunger strike. His reasons are explicated in the film's gripping middle segment, during which Sands (Michael Fassbender) meets with a priest, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham).
Here, McQueen presents, without larger comment, the point-counterpoint of Sands' self-destructive act. Both men are Republicans, so this isn't a recitation of the British vs. Irish positions. Instead, it's a dissection of what, if any, value Sands' potential suicide holds, for himself and the larger cause. Specifics asides, it could be any other situation where an irrational fervency is potentially incompatible, or even detrimental to, more traditional avenues of dissent.
While Sands defends his no-surrender position as the ultimate act of support, Moran warns of vainglorious martyrdom, of "writing your name large for the history books." Moran posits that the hard-lining on both sides -- twice in the film, we hear audio newsclips from the equally resolute Mrs. Thatcher -- is increasingly counterproductive, and that Sands' short-term win could be subsumed by long-term losses.
It's a stunning segment, an unbroken 18-minute take that frames both men in profile across a table. The material is highly charged, and it's as if all the words, ideas and intractable issues unheard in film's other two sections are crammed in this one burst of rapid-fire discourse. It begins with bantering -- trust me, it's a relief -- and ends, like so many irresolvable conflicts, in sad stalemate.
The film's final third depicts Sands' last days (wherein Fassbender joins the pantheon of method actors who starve themselves into terrifying spectres). We listen as a doctor dispassionately recites exactly how the body will cease to function. The once-brutally-beaten, now near-catatonic Sands is treated by prison medical staff with methodical tenderness; Sands' fiery arsenal has shrunk to simply the will to die.
Throughout, McQueen composes many striking shots, some perversely beautiful, such as snow falling on freshly bloodied knuckles or the abstract patterns created by streams of emptied piss pots filling the hallway from beneath cell doors.
McQueen is so gutsy and unsparingly unsentimental in most of this film, that the two places he employs analogy were a trifle disappointing. One is Sands' recitation (with unnecessary flashback) of a childhood event, the other bit of visual gilding of Sands' death scene. But these are quibbles in what is a remarkably assured piece of cinema.
Hunger is undoubtedly a challenging work. For some, its spareness and violence alone will make it difficult viewing. But in a larger sense, McQueen has managed to make a film about "The Troubles" that takes no partisan position. (Someone will surely argue otherwise, but the intent seems clear.)
Likewise, it's tough to make a movie about this topic without resorting to emotionalism, but McQueen does admirably. With virtually no conventional techniques such as defined characters, dialogue or music to cue us, many scenes are as you read them, with no definitive text. Consider this vignette from early in the film:
Leaving his house, a prison guard looks up and down his quiet street before dropping to his knees to check under his car for (presumably) a bomb. Is his street-scan to search for other threats? Or to determine that the street is deserted so that no one will mark his anxious act? Or is it just to check the weather, as routinely as he checks his vehicle's undercarriage?
As such, each viewer may in fact see a slightly different film, or find their assumptions in flux. With its predetermined ending and its lack of narrative, McQueen's film is something of a meditative exercise -- albeit an occasionally brutal and jarring one.
Because it lacks a broader accounting of the external -- the ugly tenor of those specific times that created and sustained bad behavior -- Hunger is not really a history lesson. But as an analog for how seemingly civilized cultures justify violence and barbarity in the name of a higher cause -- be it inside or outside the law -- Hunger is assuredly provocative and strangely beautiful.
Starts Fri., May 22. Harris