Hunger is the film that introduced the world to Steve McQueen. Not the iconic Bullitt actor, but the English film director who had previously worked predominantly as an artist. It was also the first time he teamed up with rising star Michael Fassbender (the two would later work together in Shame and the forthcoming film Twelve Years a Slave). If this was indeed the first time people had heard of McQueen and seen the collaboration with Fassbender, then they should count themselves lucky as they are witnesses the emergence of a director and partnership that appears to have a very promising and potentially significant future.
Set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Hunger tells the story of Republican prisoners and their attempt to regain political status after it was revoked by the British Government. The main focus of the story is that of Bobby Sands who led the 1981 hunger strike that claimed his life and that of five others. Prior to Sands’ arrival, we see the prisoners amidst a no wash protest, smearing excrement on the wall and refusing to wear anything but blankets. Upon Sands entering the prison, focus switches to his story as he refuses to eat and becomes thinner and increasingly frail.
The thing that immediately hits you as you watch Hunger is the lack of dialogue. For the first 40 minutes, barely a word is uttered; it doesn’t need to be. We get most of the information we need through what we are seeing and McQueen does an excellent job of showing no more and no less than we need. It’s brutal and disgusting and paints an ugly picture of the whole issue. We then come to the film’s middle third, the section for which it is perhaps most famous. This is a hugely impressive 17 minute long take of Sands talking to a local priest about his motivations for taking part in the hunger strike. Shot in one continuous medium long shot, it is an enthralling scene that contains nothing but dialogue as cigarette smoke dances between the two. Being so starved of dialogue up to this point, it’s a dramatic change of pace for the film and one that comes at just the right time to keep you enthralled. Following this scene, there is once again very little dialogue, perfectly framing the middle section of conversation.
Upon watching Hunger, it’ll come as a shock to few that Steve McQueen is an artist by trade. Quite simply, the film is beautifully shot; every shot is meticulously framed, showing exactly the detail that McQueen wants you to see. It’s amazing how fantastic he can make walls smeared with feaces look. Each frame could be a painting, a work of art in its own right and a disgustingly beautiful artistic snapshot of the time. Because that’s what Hunger is – a snapshot. There is little actual narrative and it’s not the character study some may expect. The characters we see in the first third of the film are not seen again and, aside from the aforementioned conversation with the priest, we don’t really get to understand much about Sands either.
Furthermore, for those with little to no knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland at the time, Hunger may be a little alienating. There is little to no exposition and you’re not really any wise by the time the films comes to an end. This is nothing that can’t be rectified with a little background reading, but it may frustrate some who are looking for something with a little more narrative. McQueen, though, is entitled to make the film he wants to make and this is clearly his preferred format.
In terms of how it views the political issues, the film does appear to sympathise slightly more with Sands and the IRA. Again, this is the side that McQueen has chosen to take so that needs to be respected, but it may alienate those with particular political leanings. McQueen does include a couple of scenes that show the other side of the coin but these are few and far between.
Now pretty much a household name, Hunger was one of the pictures that made people aware Michael Fassbender. As has since become expected of him, he is superb as Bobby Sands, and his commitment to the role is without question. Production was shut down on the film so Fassbender could undergo a medically monitored crash diet before filming the scenes as Sands during the hunger strike. Reminiscent of Christian Bale in The Machinist, Fassbender slimmed down tremendously, which at times is quite harrowing to see. We also get to see his now revered acting skills during the 17 minute conversation, showing that he is one of the most talented actors working at the moment.
Hunger won’t satisfy those looking for an in-depth discussion of the Troubles or even those looking for a character driven study of Sands and his fellow prisoners. However, it is a work of art and, visually, is one of the most fastidiously created pieces of cinema you could hope to see.