Hunger (2008)

Director:  Steve McQueen
Cast:  Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Laine Megaw, Brian Milligan 
Plot:  Irish republican Bobby Sands leads the inmates of a Northern Irish prison in a hunger strike.

Genre:  Biography / Drama
Awards:  Won Camera d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  96min
Rating:  M18 for disturbing content and nudity.

This quite astonishing feature film debut by Steve McQueen is a powerful inquiry into the fragile human condition as reflected by true events, which lay the historical foundation for the human story that unfolds in this unconventional prison drama.  Hunger, as it is so poetically if tragically titled, is a film that raises questions on human’s capacity to dehumanize fellow men for reasons as vague as its political circumstances of the time.

McQueen does not shy away from the treatment of his subject and story, providing us with a contextual insight into one of the most horrible moments in modern British politics.  The film is set in the early 1980s when the Irish Republican Army were at violent odds with the British government for the latter’s refusal to grant the former’s prisoners the symbolic “political prisoner” status, but instead viewing them as serial criminals with no human rights whatsoever. 

These prisoners were tortured and made to live in sub-human conditions in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, before their leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) started a hunger strike that would eventually kill him.  As a result, some concessions were made by the British government, but more crucially, the world took notice of the plight of these prisoners.

Fassbender’s breakthrough role as Sands is nothing short of breathtaking.  Like many other method actors that have come before him, Fassbender immerses himself psychologically, and more shockingly, physically into the role that would earn him plaudits for his courageous devotion to his craft. 

To portray Sands’ physical mortification as a result of his hunger strike (that lasted all of 66 days), Fassbender lost enough weight to pass off credibly as a person who has not eaten for weeks, with skin sagging and bones all-too-obvious to the naked eye.

Hunger is a challenging film to watch, not only because of the ghastly sight of Fassbender’s skinny body, but also McQueen’s uncompromising direction in which he uses static long shots and long takes to bring out the temporal reality of the scene.  There is a static long take that lasts for about 17 minutes that shows a civilized but occasionally heated dialogue between Sands and a priest; it is an outrageous sequence but perhaps the film’s most important one. 

The violence in Hunger reminds me of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), not so much in its explicit depiction, but in its thematic portrayal of authoritarian violence against the weak.  Sound is also used to frightening effect in Hunger as police guards line up regimentally to beat their shields with their batons, as others violently force the prisoners, who are completely nude here, to be physically checked by medical personnel. 

Hunger compensates its harsh and brutal depiction of reality in its first half with a calmer, more introspective second half as we enter the psychology of Sands as he comes to terms with his decision to starve to death.  By the film’s end, no words are said as Sands’ body is wheeled out in a detached long shot.  As viewers, we are left inspired by Sands’ self-sacrificing act, yet we somehow feel it is a sacrifice that could have been better deliberated.


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