At once visceral and delicate, abstract and rigid, Steve McQueen’s debut feature film Hunger is unflinching in its examination of the Irish Republican Army hunger strikes in Northern Ireland in the early ’80s. McQueen, an artist who’s made a number of experimental films for art galleries, strikes an incredibly resonant chord here, showcasing his gift for imagery in a narrative context.
Indeed, it’s somewhat astonishing how forceful the narrative is, despite being carried along by wisps of images — crumbs falling onto a lap, a cigarette in the snow, a fly and a hint of daylight. Contextual information is somewhat thin — there’s little historical backstory on the British withdrawing special status for IRA prisoners and the resulting protests — but there are ample evocations of a place. The HM Prison Maze, a spartan, unforgiving hole where the IRA prisoners refused to wear prison garments, smeared their feces on the walls and dumped their urine into the hallways.
McQueen makes sure we can smell the shit and feel the piss underneath our feet. The images of such are not sensational or even revolting in a traditional sense. They’re simply cold — a sober reminder of a harsh reality.
In the middle of it is Bobby Sands, played with unwavering intensity by Michael Fassbender. Sands was the first of 10 prisoners who would starve themselves to death before the strike was called off.
In the first act of the film, McQueen doesn’t even show us Sands, instead giving us glimpses of prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), who lives a normal life outside of the prison except for the need to examine his car for explosives each morning, and new prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), who is thrust naked into the cold reality of a feces-stained prison with only a blanket to shield himself.
McQueen shows an unerring confidence in his filmmaking, giving the audience a succession of precisely framed shots that are richly woven together. Then, not long after Sands is thrust into the forefront, he stops everything for a nearly 20-minute-long stationary two-shot of Sands discussing his plan to starve himself with a priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). The sheer length of the shot is enough to establish it as a tentpole in a film that traffics often in fleeting images, but the strength of the writing by Enda Walsh and McQueen and Fassbender and Cunningham’s banter make it so much more than just a formalist exercise. The stillness of the frame and the silhouetted nature of the lighting make it an impeccable stylistic choice among the imagery that precedes it and follows it.
Hunger is an arresting experience and McQueen’s collection of rhythmic visuals is a cinematic punch to the gut. His stylistic vision is one to eagerly anticipate in upcoming projects.
The Blu-ray Disc
Hunger is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Despite the film’s drab and oppressive color palette, there’s no missing the superb visual presentation featured on the disc. Fine detail is a constant presence, with excellent contrast and deep black levels. The shadow and light interplay that McQueen uses frequently in the film is sharp and distinct. It’d be hard to pick a frame out of the film that doesn’t look like it belongs in an art gallery, and the presentation here faithfully captures the film’s beauty despite its horrific subject matter.
The audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD track, which shows up forcefully when it needs to. Mostly though, the film is presided over by total silence, giving it a meditative and haunting atmosphere. Outbursts of violence and sudden, punctuated occurrences of sound make good use of the mix however, and dialogue sounds crisp and clear in the front channel.
The supplements aren’t extensive here, but provide some important filmic and historical context. A 20-minute interview with McQueen briefly covers his experimental film background and provides a succinct look at his visual strategy with Hunger — a strategy that overwhelmingly succeeds. A shorter interview with Fassbender is more publicity-focused, but his commitment to the role is obvious, and the piece touches on the crash diet he underwent to achieve the emaciated body seen in the film’s final act. A short making-of of the film includes more interview footage of McQueen and Fassbender, as well as Cunningham, Graham, Milligan and Walsh. Placing the film within its historical bounds is a 45-minute program from the BBC titled “The Provos’ Last Card,” aired in the middle of the hunger strikes in 1981. Also included is the theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay from critic Chris Darke.
The Bottom Line
McQueen’s unique vision in Hunger makes for a captivating experience, and Criterion’s solid treatment of the film ensures a strong recommendation.