“I have my belief, and in all it’s simplicity that is the most important thing.”
Sometimes movies are just a pastime. We watch them just to kill a few hours of our day and when the credits roll we get on with our lives just as before. Hunger isn’t one of those movies though. It’s slow, laborious and whether you like it or not, it will etch itself into your skin and live with you for a very long time.
Before Steve McQueen wowed Hollywood with his adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years A Slave, the English director had already tackled a dark, controversial topic for his first feature film Hunger, focussing on the story of the interned IRA prisoner’s hunger strike that began in 1980 and the final days of the group’s leader Bobby Sands. Bleak and harrowing, McQueen does his absolute best to remain true to the original story rather than opting out for a more clean-cut and stylish finish. Hunger is brutal and as far from Hollywood as you’ll get.
Bobby Sands is played by Michael Fassbender in a breakout role and typically he is in outstanding form. Although he’s the main star, the film spends as much time early on with the prison guards and their families. While Sands has since been characterised a hero by the Irish, McQueen does a great job of not taking sides and the film isn’t about who’s right or wrong, it’s about the abject reality of prison life. There’s absolutely no room for romanticising the moral of the story here, it’s visceral and intoxicating and pulls zero punches.
McQueen chooses to highlight the intolerable confinement of the prison cells, using them as a sort of character to enhance the claustrophobic atmosphere that he already encapsulates throughout the limited dialogue. I like to call McQueen a shot-master. Someone who can undeniably tell more with one single shot and zero dialogue than many directors can do with ten pages of exposition. Call him an art director if you want. Call Hunger an art film if you want. McQueen is an artist who refuses to follow any trend. A visionary who tells human stories in a human way.
As good as Fassbender is, he isn’t even the the star performer of the whole film. Well maybe he can at least share that prize with Liam Cunningham who plays Father Moran, a Catholic priest who holds meetings with Sands to persuade him against the continuation of the hunger strike. His character isn’t even on screen for that long but his presence and conviction with which he delivers his dialogue is something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. There’s a particular scene between Cunningham and Fassbender were they discuss the reasons behind the hunger strike and the morality of suicide. I’ve watched a hell of a lot of movies in my 32 years on this world and I don’t think I’ve ever believed a scene more in my life. The camera holds on both men and doesn’t move away once during the entire conversation. It’s one long take, a trait that would become synonymous with Steve McQueen and his future films. I’m not quite sure how long the scene lasts – I think it’s close to 20 minutes – but after five minutes I completely forgot I was watching a film. It was engrossing. breathtaking, enthralling. How many times can you say that about two men just talking…?
Another scene that stands out – and is as simple as it gets – is when a guard is tasked with washing down the prison corridor that has become swamped in the prisoners urine during the dirty protest. The sound from the brush on the cold floor is grating and serves as a continued reminder just how lonely and desolate prison can be. Sound is an important aspect of the entire film and Hunger has shades of Kubrick or Hitchcock throughout. The way sound dictates certain scenes; the rattling of pots and pans against cold walls, the stomping of prison guard’s boots. However, maybe the most important sound in the whole film is silence.
It’s ironic that an English director’s debut feature film is about the political tyranny England held over Ireland and all that spawned from such an iconic moment in history. Yet McQueen cares more about the characters and their struggle rather than their political beliefs and the consequences of such events. Fassbender completely transforms by the end of the film and in a way it’s difficult as a viewer not become transformed by watching too.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter