Dir: Steve McQueen
Most of our experience with films about the IRA and the Irish Troubles are limited to dramatic reenactments, dramatized and stylized scenes of brutality seen in the likes of In the Name of the Father and Billy Elliott. While truly horrific to behold, there is something that creates a safe buffer between the viewer and the violence, a distance that allows us to remember though the brutality is harrowing, it’s just a waxwork version of the real blood spilled. Perhaps the urgency is also taken away by the accompaniment of a rousing U2 score or made more macabre by the inclusion of tunes like “London Calling.”
While Paul Greengrass brought immediacy to the issue with his Bloody Sunday, nothing can measure the traumatic experience of Hunger, the feature debut of artist Steve McQueen. Set in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison, the film concerns the 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands, but really is a condemnation of British attitudes toward the Irish that peels back the skin and reveals not only the horrific treatment of prisoners but a duplicity exhibited by the British in the suppression of Irish identity to further their own nationalism.
McQueen does not hold back in his rattling depiction of the horrors in the Maze. Eschewing straight narrative and character development for a wrenching experience, McQueen does not compromise violence for weaker palettes. But there are many, many silent passages in Hunger that may prove also too much for some audiences. Stretches of silent snowfall or the clinical clean-up of spilled urine are chronicled in excruciating detail, counterpoints to the flash beatings and torture. There is a lengthy anticipation in these scenes, the calm before the proverbial storm.
Interestingly enough, McQueen doesn’t introduce Sands until close to the 30 minute mark, but begins the film with guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). Knuckles perpetually bloody from the beatings, McQueen follows Lohan as he soaks his hands, eats breakfast, checks his car for bombs and heads to work in absolute silence. It is an interesting choice, throwing off the audience by depicting Lohan as the protagonist. But as we enter the Maze with Lohan, we learn that he is yet another silent aggressor and perpetrator of the horrors within.
As we enter the Maze, the prisoners are in the midst of a “blanket” and “no wash” protest. Cell walls are caked with shit, mashed potatoes are used to force streams of piss into the hallways. Sands (Michael Fassbender of 300) isn’t introduced with the shining lights and pomp that indicates star and protagonist. He slowly emerges from the ranks of bearded and tortured prisoners when he quietly announces his intentions to begin his hunger strike.
There are so many indelible images in Hunger, some that could comprise the entire oeuvre of a lesser artist. McQueen painstakingly shows us how the prisoners pass notes and other contraband to visitors, through tiny pieces of paper hidden in nasal cavities, small radios jammed into orifices. When Sands is first introduced, his long hair is forcefully sheared off, he is beaten, washed and scrubbed down by a violent Lohan and then ironically beaten again. But there are beautiful shots as well. Lohan, knuckles raw and bleeding, smoking out in the snow. Sands using the Book of Lamentations to make cigarettes. A quiet cross-country run as the dying Sands recalls a 12-year-old incarnation of himself. So many images to haunt us long after the lights come up.
Perhaps the film’s most riveting scene contains no violence whatsoever. In a take that lasts 22 minutes, Sands meets with Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) to lay out his plan for the hunger strike. Though the priest tries to dissuade him, Sands states, “I will not stand by and do nothing.” Fassbender then launches into a monologue about a school trip from his youth where he and other members of a track and field team find a dying foal and while all the others ruminate about what to do, he is the only one who takes action. It is a scene as visceral and moving as any beating that has come before.
The final segment of the film documents Sands’s final, quiet deterioration in painful detail. Bedsores appear on his skeletal frame and his vacant eyes stare up as images of that wooded run from the past overtake him. For its brief run time, Hunger is an unforgettable experience that is the perfect balance of the horrific and the beautiful. It is something you will never forget.