This is an extraordinary film – surely the best British film of the year.
It’s the first feature directed by (no, not that) Steve McQueen – a very personable Young British Artist who won the Turner Prize in 1999 for his film installations – including, as I remember it, a reproduction of the famously dangerous Buster Keaton stunt in Steamboat Bill Jr where a house falls on top of him. (I met him a year later and he was desperate to make a feature even then – “I’m ready,” he said, “Just give me the money, I can do it.” It took him another seven years.)
Hunger is a film about Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican who led the hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981. The IRA prisoners demanded “Special Category Status” to reflect their political motivation. Mrs Thatcher was not inclined to do so, and in the impasse, Sands wasted away.
Those are the facts, but they don’t begin to describe the experience of watching Hunger, which is radically different from most movies we’ve seen about the struggle – stuff like In The Name Of The Father and the previous film about Sands, Some Mother’s Son (well worth a look by the way). In a strange way it may be closest to Alan Clark’s Elephant, and it’s nothing like Elephant.
If I’m oblique, so is McQueen. The film begins with Ray Lohan (played by Stuart Graham), a guard at the Maze. We see him washing his bruised and callused knuckles. We see him smoking a cigarette against a wall. We see him checking under his car, just in case. His wife watches anxiously from behind the curtain.
A new prisoner is processed into the H-block. Like his comrades, he refuses a prison uniform, so after he strips he is presented with a blanket (this is the “blanket protest”). His cell stinks. The walls are painted with excrement (this is the “dirty protest”). When it’s time for the prisoners to be cleaned off, they are forced to run a gauntlet of kicks and fists from the guards. We see how Ray Lohan hurt his hands.
Dialogue is minimal, and McQueen keeps the music well in the background. His holds his shots and invites us to examine them, whether it’s an almost abstract impression of falling snow, or something as pragmatic as a prisoner constructing a wall with the slop they feed them so that he can empty his bucket of urine out under the cell door into the corridor, and prevent it flowing right back.
If it sounds brutal it’s also very matter of fact. McQueen isn’t humanizing anybody or demonizing either, though anyone watching is bound to feel strongly about this institutionalized degradation.
The movie’s centerpiece (literally, it’s positioned halfway through) is a lengthy conversation between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham). It lasts nearly 20 minutes, and it’s virtually all covered in a medium profile shot. There is some back and forth about the state of the Republican movement; the priest brings news from the outside world; Bobby gives him the inside perspective. Then he tells him what he means to do – and why.
Despite the stark restraint of the technique – or because of it – we’re hooked, hanging on every word of this exchange, in part because it’s practically the only dialogue of any note in the entire movie, and because it’s written and acted with such power. Cunningham will be familiar from all sorts of places, including The Wind that Shakes the Barley; Fassbender maybe less so – he crops up in 300 and Band Of Brothers, but looks all set for a major career on the back of this performance.
Looking back on my conversation with Steve McQueen all those years ago, the sentence that leaps out at me is this: “People are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to make an interesting film today…”
Well, he figured it out. Hunger isn’t easy watching and it doesn’t give us easy answers. You may not agree with Bobby Sands’ politics or his tactics, but we can respect his sacrifice. The movie is a powerful testament to a man’s life, no more and no less than that.
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