The critically acclaimed film “Hunger,” from debut director and celebrated artist Steve McQueen, will be released in the U.S. on March 20.
“Hunger” premiered in the U.S. last September at the New York Film Festival, follows life in the notorious Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, focusing on the highly emotive events surrounding the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike led by Bobby Sands.
The film, which won the Camera d’Or prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for best first feature film, opens wordlessly, following a day in the life of a local prison officer whose morning routine includes kissing his anxious wife, scanning the street for Republican snipers and looking under his car for explosive devices. So far, so depressing.
All the tension and darkness of the early Margaret Thatcher era comes flooding back within the first few minutes of the film, too. Early on we also hear Thatcher’s absurdly upper crust voice over (she was the daughter of a shopkeeper who sounded like a duchess) insisting that the IRA are merely terrorists and not political prisoners — and with that statement the sense of political stalemate is copper fastened.
When the prison officer finally reaches the Maze Prison the film takes us into the heart of the Northern Irish conflict — the Maze is ground zero after all, the place where the British state faces off against an implacable Irish republican foe every day. Working in one of the infamous H-Blocks, the officer confronts prisoners on the No Wash protest, making life a living hell for both prisoners and guards.
What’s remarkable about McQueen’s deeply thoughtful film is its objectivity from the first frame to the last. A Turner Prize winning artist in his own right, he’s in many ways an unlikely choice to direct this highly provocative material, which is possibly why he has produced a work of such power.
More than anything, McQueen is interested in what happens to people locked in a seemingly unwinnable facedown, and so his portrayal is scrupulously fair.
“The body as the site of political warfare is becoming a more familiar phenomenon,” McQueen told the Irish Voice newspaper in a recent interview. “It’s the final act of desperation, your own body is your last resource for protest. One uses what one has, rightly or wrongly.”
Bobby Sands, the iconic Republican prisoner and the first hunger striker to die, is introduced in the film without fanfare because McQueen doesn’t believe in heroes, martyrs or victims. His intention is to provoke debate in the audience.
Nonetheless, the horrifying reality of Sands’ incarceration speaks for itself, with brutal guards, dehumanizing conditions, daily beatings and chaos regularly erupting. The daily routine in the H Blocks is often completely stomach churning, and McQueen spares nothing in his depiction of it.
At the heart of his film is an outstanding performance by Irish newcomer Michael Fassbender as Sands (the actor lost 35 pounds during filming to make his portrayal all the more shockingly realistic).
After he decides to go on hunger strike to protest for a special category status for Republican prisoners, Sands’ condition quickly deteriorates. McQueen shows us exactly what this means.
Painful open sores develop, as Sands’ emaciated body starts to use its own tissues to produce energy. After that, we hear how his body begins to use protein from his skeletal muscles and vital organs.
As the hunger strike progresses his body starts to break down the protein in his own vital organs, and his heart, respiratory organs and liver start to fail. All of this is shown onscreen, and some audience members may well find it too disturbing to watch.
Throughout, though, the events of the film are shown through the eyes of the prisoners and the prison officers. In the middle of the film McQueen even stages a tense debate — the script was written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh — between Sands and a Catholic priest about the morality of a hunger strike.
Although McQueen gives time to the language of the script, it’s his powerful and often silent visual work that gives the film its power. To live, he reminds us, is very mysterious, and to willingly give up your life in pursuit of a goal is even more so.
This remarkable and timely film also reminds us how this painful and all too recent history has not yet been resolved.