UK (2008) Dir. Steve McQueen
The debut feature film from the man who dominated the awards this year with the mighty 12 Years A Slave is an equally uncompromising dramatisation based on the hunger strike of the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison In Northern Ireland in 1981. Unlike 12 Years… this is a barebones affair that is more a sequence of harrowing events than a straight up story put still packs a hefty punch.
A quick history lesson: in 1976 the British Government revoked the political status of IRA prisoners during the turbulent period known as “The Troubles”. When Margaret Thatcher took over the premiership in 1979 she kept this moratorium which provoked a series of protests in the prison, beginning with the Blanket Protest and the Dirty Protest. Prisoners would refuse to wear the regulation uniform and would not wash, often smearing their cell walls with their faeces. When Thatcher reportedly reneged on a compromise an IRA leader Bobby Sands (portrayed here by Michael Fassbender) ordered a hunger strike, sixty-six days into which he died.
It requires noting before we continue that McQueen doesn’t glamorise or sanctify Sands or his fellow prisoners in any way, nor does he justify the brutality of the prison guards which makes for uncomfortable viewing. The intent here is telling the story and opening our eyes but to not to lead us to taking sides, although I am sure some will. Much of the exposition and background story is told through sound bites from news reports and from Thatcher’s speeches from the time, otherwise the impetus for this series of events is rarely discussed.
For the first part of the film the focus is on new prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) who is noted as a “non-conformist prisoner” for refusing to wear a prison uniform and is stripped naked save for a blanket, beaten and put in a cell with another dirty protestor Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon). Through largely silent episodes we follow the two as they make things uncomfortable for the prison staff and in turn make things uncomfortable for themselves. There is no arguing the violent force used against them is often unnecessary but there appears no middle ground reached by either side. When they receive news that they can wear civilian clothes, they are conned when the clothes they get are not only not their own as promised but gaudy coloured mismatched attire deigned to further the humiliation they’ve already suffered during their brutal beat downs. The end result is another riot and another step backwards for the prisoner’s cause.
In parallel to the hardship the prisoners incur we see how it wears down the guards themselves through the eyes of Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). Every morning he soaks his bruised knuckles, resignedly gets dressed, checks his car for bombs then wearily shows up at the prison for work barely speaking with his colleagues. While he is party to some of the rough handling it is only through provocation and he spends most of his time alone pondering the futility of it all. Unfortunately he also features in arguably the most shocking scene of the whole film.
Sand doesn’t appear until the second half of the film his first appearance being the reason for Lohan’s bruised knuckles. Always on edge and defiant it is during what is now a McQueen trademark –the long single shot take – that we get to understand what drives Sands and why he decides a hunger strike is the best course of action. In a perfectly framed 17 minute scene shot wide with just one camera, Sands opens up to Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) who tries to dissuade him. It probably goes on a bit longer than it should but it is an intense and perfectly scene that brings a sense of humanity to Sands and his campaign, albeit with a admittedly dogmatic tone.
It is with good reason that Sands’s presence is kept to a minimum as Fassbender underwent a medically approved crash diet for the starvation scenes, appearing on screen in an unspeakably upsetting emaciated state that makes Christian Bale in The Machinist look like a sumo wrestler. It may seem like madness for an actor to go to such drastic lengths for the sake of a role but Fassbender’s commitment to delivering such an authentic performance is as commendable as it is scary. As much as his partial appearance dominates and remains foremost in our memories, the other cast members more than acquit themselves in their roles, especially Milligan, McMahon and the other prisoners who take some harsh beatings.
McQueen first made his name as Turner Prize winning artist but this debut shows his flair for film making in terms of shot composition, storytelling and mood, utilising a minimalist style with the muted colour palate to create a palpable atmosphere suited to the bleak mood of 1980’s Ireland. It also shows his unwavering boldness in attacking issues with a candour and realism others would refrain from for fear of commercial suicide. Usually after their first film a newcomer either fails to match its success or critical acclaim or gets “softer” as his career takes off, McQueen has bucked this trend by making big budget films which still retain his unflinching artistic edge.
An ambitious if not audacious debut for McQueen, Hunger is a startlingly frank drama based on a subject which is difficult not to sensationalise, a challenge he met head on and conquered. It’s a sublime piece of cinema that will please both art house lovers and fans of real life events in equal measures.