In 2008, Steve McQueen (Shame) made his directorial debut with Hunger, a film that focuses on the 1981 hunger strike that took place in the infamous Maze prison found in Northern Ireland. Though while the strike itself is a main emphasis of the final half of the film, the first half is focused on presenting just how brutal and unrelenting life was made for these Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners during this time by the prison guards who seemed determined to break their spirits and vanquish their dignity.
Of course, both sides of the coin are shown, as McQueen also focuses on the life of a prison guard (Stuart Graham) and his daily routine, which consists of his constant need to watch over his shoulder for hit men, and check under his car for bombs every morning. Though nobody is completely innocent in this tale, as this guard’s knuckles are consistently bloodied and worn due to the force required to keep the inmates in line.
McQueen’s visual direction is found in full force in this film, as he’s not one to just spell things out for the viewer. The way he chooses to shoot or angle a shot is all part of how he’s telling the story, and while it’s definitely not a style that all will enjoy, it’s a nice change of pace for the most part, and is usually accompanied by some spectacularly shot scenes. Of course, not all of his visions work here, as there are a few moments where the camera lingers just a little too long – which is something he perfected a lot more in his latest works, Shame.
This is how most of the first act is filmed, as there is very little dialogue between the actions being carried out on the screen. When a new IRA prisoner arrives, he refuses to wear the clothing of a prisoner, and is signed in as a “non-conforming prisoner.” As part of the “blanket” protest that going on, he’s led to his cell naked, with only a blanket to cover himself. Upon entering his cell, we witness through his eyes how the “washing” strike in full effect, as the cell walls are smeared top to bottom in feces, and this man’s new cellmate is a sitting in a dirty corner, with long, unkempt hair and a straggly beard.
The visual storytelling of defying and brutality continues until the midway point where IRA militant Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) meets with his priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), to discuss his plans to take things to the next level. What he tells Moran is that the blanket and no wash strikes aren’t working, and what he wants to do it begin a hunger strike in an attempt to gain sympathy from those on the outside.
What happens here is some fantastic filmmaking, and superb acting, as this entire 17-minute discussion takes place in one shot, with the camera never moving from its initial position. The two debate the ethics of what Sands is about to endure, and Moran tries to explain there are other ways to go about being heard instead of sacrificing his life and the lives of others. Eventually Moran realizes that there’s no talking Sands down, and the wonderfully put together scene ends.
The final half of the film is a brutal look at the true conviction of one man (as well as those that followed him — though their struggle isn’t focused on here) and the toll a hunger strike takes on him. Fassbender himself went on a crash diet in order to play the role to its full potential, and while the weight-loss obviously helped him portray the character he played here, it’s his delivery and conviction that really place him into the shoes of a man who had such strong beliefs himself. Fassbender’s work here is terrific, and his more recent roles have shown that he’ll continue to grow into one of Hollywood’s top men, with eventual Academy recognition being inevitable.
McQueen’s direction, vision, and written work here shows why he’s one of the best independent directors around at the moment, and his chemistry with Fassbender makes it obvious as to why the man seems to be McQueen’s first choice for each movie he’s made thus far.
Hunger isn’t for everyone, as it’s got a pacing that may throw some off, and subject matter that holds nothing back when aiming to show just how far some people will go to stand up for what they believe in. It’s an incredibly well made film, especially for a directorial debut, and it’s definitely worth seeing; though I’d find myself more likely to revisit his sophomoric effort, Shame, for a third time to admire his skills before returning to this for a second.
For those of you who have a hard time understanding Irish accents, prepare to be happy that most of this film is visual, as there are no subtitles to be found on this disc, and there are times (especially during the 17-minute conversation) where rewinding is necessary to fully grasp what’s being said. That said, it’s no fault of the audio, which comes through incredibly clear, especially as sound effects alongside the drawn out visual scenes. The visuals are also sharp and crisp, with the film’s blacks coming through deep and rich, instead of muddy on any level.
There are no special features to be found here, which is unfortunate, as it would have been nice to hear from McQueen and Fassbender in regards to all that went in to making this film come to life.
Hunger is a harsh look at a real situation that took place 30 years ago. There’s no black and white vision of who’s good and who’s bad, as it’s all a matter of perspective. While certain shots linger a little long, there’s no denying that Hunger is a powerful directorial debut for McQueen that’s worth seeing at least once. Highly recommended.
An Alliance Films Release Film 4 and Channel 4 in Association with Northern Ireland Screen The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and The Wales Creative IP Fund Present Hunger. Directed by: Steve McQueen. Written by: Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham. Running time: 96 minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: April 17, 2012. Available at Amazon.ca.
Tags: Hunger, Michael Fassbender, Steve McQueen