Steve McQueen is probably one of the most well-known and best-loved screen icons of all time. Whether he’s jumping a fence on his motorbike or leading a Magnificent band of cowboys, everybody knows his face, his voice and his style.
Unfortunately for the movie community, that Steve McQueen died in 1980. However, 2008 saw a new Steve McQueen land on the map. As the director of bleak drama Hunger, McQueen showed that he could be as skilled behind the lens (and with a pen, as he also co-wrote the script) as his namesake was in front of it.
Based on the real-life hunger strike of Bobby Sands in 1981, Hunger follows the happenings in Northern Ireland prison HMS Maze in the weeks and months prior to Sands’ (SPOILER FOR THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW THE HISTORY) self-inflicted death from malnutrition. Sands, played brilliantly by recent QT Basterd Michael Fassbender, is an incarcerated IRA volunteer who, along with the other inmates, executes a number of strikes in order to try and gain political prisoner status (a notion which the Thatcher government strongly opposed). As well as Sands’ famous hunger strike, there were also no-wash protests and ‘blanket protests’ wherein the IRA-following inmates refused to wear prison clothes, both of which are also shown in often brutally frank fashion – the camera lingers on the wall of Gerry’s (Liam McMahon) cell which he has smeared with shit and we are shown a violent episode when the prisoners are forcibly washed by the guards. As well as Gerry and Bobby, we also follow the journeys of prison guard Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham) and new inmate Davey (Brian Milligan), and the tales are interwoven via a series of cuts and jumps.
To say that Hunger is an unusual movie is to do it somewhat of a disservice, but it’s safe to say that McQueen’s drama is light years from recent mainstream biopics like Ray or Capote. It is not a film which sets out to make a star of its lead (although Fassbender’s performance is so good it made him one anyway) or to glamourise a famous historical figure. For large parts of it, Hunger is ostensibly an arthouse mood piece, replete with lengthy stationary-camera shots and half hours without any real dialogue. The climactic conversation between Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Moran is 20 minutes long, yet for 15 of those minutes the camera never moves, simply documenting the powerful discussion that culminated in Sands’ decision to starve himself in the name of idealism.
The lack of dialogue, focus on death and obsession with, well, poo may leave you thinking that this is just another pretentious melodrama about a tortured soul in a cruel world yadda yadda yadda.
But if there’s one thing that Hunger is not, it’s up itself. While it does contain what some would deem hallmarks of quasi-fantastical pretension, it doesn’t ever stray into the unreal. The prison is grotty, grim and grey throughout, and you get the sense that there isn’t much dialogue because the inmates simply have nothing much to say. They are united by their common goals, are set upon their strikes, and thus can communicate without speech.
The silence is deafening at times, and the sound effects (of which I am a bit of a fan) are beautifully rendered – the scraping of a hard-bristled broom on the hallway floors lingers in the mind. McQueen also intersperses these silent montages with real life radio clips from Thatcher’s speeches to the House of Commons, which ensures that the film remains grounded in reality instead of teetering into overly stylised phantasmagoria.
McQueen has worked wonders on page and screen here, but perhaps his masterstroke was the casting of Michael Fassbender as the starving protagonist Sands. During the aforementioned discussion with Father Moran, the German-born actor not only delivers a pitch-perfect Belfast twang, but also exudes a physical and mental toughness which makes the man himself seem as unshakeable as his beliefs.
Just half an hour later we see a skeletal Sands lying on his prison hospital bed, a shadow of himself, dreaming of his youth as his adult life begins to ebb away. Fassbender not only clearly lost scary amounts of weight for these sequences, but also displays the unerring tenacity of Sands: trying to haul himself out of the bath despite not having eaten in months, and stoically refusing any and all food placed before him.
Fassbender’s tremendous turn aside, this is still a very good film full of melancholia, idealism and artistic potency in equal measure. It does suffer from occasionally slowing down a little bit too much, and some scenes could do with a small trim, but overall, Hunger is a wonderful picture. McQueen has not only called attention to Fassbender’s talents as an actor, but also his own as writer/director, and Steve McQueen is not a name that we should be (or most likely will be) forgetting anytime soon.
9/10 – A deeply troubling portrayal of a nation in a time in crisis, told through the frontline protesters who chose to risk their lives in the name of republicanism, anchored by the fantastic Fassbender and the mercurial McQueen. An incredibly bleak, but significant and poignant movie.