Real artistry is always, always startling. No matter the familiar premise, there is someone out there who can explore it with new eyes, allowing an audience to see it as though for the first time.
Dozens of features have taken the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland as their backdrop, nearly all of them terribly sincere about dealing with the drama of a country torn apart, and the fine line between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter.” But no film about the subject has been as indelibly fascinating—both viscerally and intellectually—as Steve McQueen’s Hunger.
McQueen and co-scripter Enda Walsh divide the film into three fairly distinct segments. In the first, set in 1981, we observe Irish Republican prisoners—and their guards—during the “no wash” strike in which the Republicans demanded political-prisoner status from the British government.
There’s no attempt at a straightforward narrative; there are simply snippets of daily life, from a guard soothing the bruised knuckles received after beating a prisoner to the many and varied ways friends and family pass contraband to the prisoners. It’s a dizzying, often brutal feat of impressionism, as McQueen builds the agony of a situation in which everyone on both sides winds up dehumanized.
The second act presents a jarring change of pace, but one that’s just as engrossing. It’s composed almost entirely of a 16-minute static shot, in which Republican activist Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) discusses with a priest (Liam Cunningham) his intent to begin a tothe-death hunger strike. What ensues is a complex moral interrogation: Is Sands’ plan one with a genuine political goal or merely an act of suicidal martyrdom?
By comparison, the third act—which basically observes the six-week disintegration of Sands’ body during his hunger strike—is bound to be a bit of a comedown. Yet the harsh images provide the culmination of an unflinching work of art, one that suggests asking new questions is more powerful than providing pat answers.
Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham,