Director Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a very intriguing look at the men in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison at the time of the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike because rather than picking sides, the film remains neutral, choosing instead to focus on the grim realities of the situation. It opens with title cards that provide the time and place, how many have died as a result of “the Troubles,” and the positions of the British government and the Irish Republicans.
The viewer is dropped into this world but the film offers very limited dialogue to explain what is happening. Ray (Stuart Graham) begins his day, soaking his hands due to reasons that are soon revealed. He checks his car for bombs before leaving for work while his wife nervously watches from the front window. He is a prison officer in the H-Block at Maze where IRA prisoners are on a “blanket and no-wash” protest because the British government doesn’t recognize their status. The officers have to bathe the prisoners by force.
Davey (Brian Milligan) is a new prisoner and refuses to wear standard prison garb. He is given a blanket and taken to his cell where he finds the walls smeared with excrement and fellow IRA member Gerry (Liam McMahon) as his cellmate. Gerry shows Davey the ropes of life in the prison, but it doesn’t prepare him for the officers’ fists and clubs.
About a third of the way through Hunger, we meet Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who would lead a hunger strike, the ramifications of which he discusses with Father Dominic (Liam Cunningham) at about the midway point of the film. The majority of the scene is an 18-minute, single take of their conversation, standing in sharp contrast from the rest of the film. Once the decision is made, Bobby stops eating and begins to waste away until his death. The title cards return to inform that nine others followed Bobby and how the British government reacted.
Hunger is a tough film to watch and might put some viewers off. While there are very good acting performances, it doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality and harshness experienced by those in the prison, particularly Bobby’s dying, which is depicted through make-up and Fassbender’s weight loss.
While McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Edna Walsh, demonstrates himself to be a talent to watch, there were some choices made that didn’t work well. The pacing moved too slowly at times and some scenes weren’t necessary because they either didn’t add to the story or they repeated information already seen. For example, after showing an officer steam-cleaning excrement of the cell walls, there was no need to later show an officer cleaning the piss-filled hallway.
What’s most interesting about Hunger is that it doesn’t inform the viewer with much backstory other than the opening title cards. For those not fully versed in the events, the story becomes of the moment, thematically becoming a larger story than one of just these specific people, leaving the viewer with a lot to ponder.
While Hunger will be too tough for some to stomach, those who can handle it will, for the most part, appreciate the experience it provides.