Hunger is the debut film of Steve McQueen. It depicts the real-life events of IRA prisoners’ dirty protests and hunger strikes in 1981, that culminated in the deaths of 10 prisoners, and ultimately led to changes in British Government policy in Northern Ireland.
It opens with words from the ‘iron lady’ Margaret Thatcher in voice over, stating that
There is no political violence, only criminal violence.
Steve McQueen then uses this astonishing, brutal film to demonstrate that the Irish Republican violence she denounced so vehemently was in fact systemic within the British State’s own policy towards IRA prisoners. He shows a world in which violence breeds violence in a terrible inevitable cycle. The policies and violence of the leadership of both the IRA and the UK Government have a deadly, crushing, dehumanising impact on the IRA’s ‘footsoldiers’ and the state prison officials.
The opening sequence is immediately arresting and sets the tone for what is to follow. In bleak, washed-out tones and almost complete silence, we watch a prison guard soak his swollen knuckles, check beneath his car for bombs, and arrive at work seemingly alienated from his raucous colleagues.
Within minutes, but still in silence, we are made to explore every corner of the haunting stillness of the prison cells covered from floor to ceiling with filth, and gaunt IRA prisoners crouched in their rank blankets. Steve McQueen grabs the viewer by the throat and demands our attention.
Indeed, it feels as though more than half the running length of the film is shot in silence, which compels the viewer to concentrate on the images, which are often cruel and almost always shocking. While we are forced to confront the implications of what McQueen is showing us, at the same time his shots are beautifully composed with an artist’s eye. The colour palette borders on the monochromatic, but is always washed-out, seemingly stripped bare of vitality and colour.
These long, almost meditative sequences are punctuated by short scenes of extreme violence that are all the more shocking for their noise and brutality. However, the heart of the film is an amazing 20-minute scene, a two-hander between Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands and the prison priest, including a single 16 minute take. As with the silences, here the unmoving camera forces the viewer to concentrate on the dialogue, and despair at the intransigence of the hunger striker. At the same time we are given some insight into his background and determination to ‘succeed’.
Fassbender’s performance is spellbinding (although everyone in the cast is mesmerising). He commands every ounce of our attention, and his physical transformation in the final sequences of the film is as disturbing as any of the physical violence meted out in earlier scenes.
The film paints a vicious indictment of the inhumanity of ‘the Troubles’. Prison guards are forced to implement Government policy to suppress and subjugate the criminal violence of the IRA. There is a LOT of violence in this prison, both physical and mental, with systematic beatings of prisoners and subsequent riots that are terrible to watch. But while McQueen spends more time exposing the State violence, he certainly doesn’t apologise for or gloss over Republican atrocities, as one truly shocking moment makes clear. Guards and prisoners are both the victims of their leaders, following orders to implement campaigns or policies they don’t fully understand, which strip them of their humanity and cost many lives.
Hunger is an important and hugely impressive film, and will probably rank as one of the best films I’ll see all year. It’s definitely a very tough watch, and not at all for the faint-hearted. The trailer gives a flavour of the violence, even if it doesn’t quite do justice to the stillness and silences.