The Troubles lead to the deaths of thousands and caused immeasurable suffering across the decades in which they spanned, representing some of the darkest days seen on the British Isles since the end of World War II. Irish republicans fought against Ulster loyalists in a bloody campaign that led to the British government deploying military personnel against its own citizens, and whilst the Good Friday Agreement brought the Troubles to an end in 1998, the wounds endured by all sides throughout the conflict remain raw and unforgotten.
Hunger, the directorial debut of Steve McQueen – whose 2013 feature 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture – focuses primarily on a series of protests undertaken by republican prisoners at Maze prison during the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to the removal of their status as political prisoners. Having this status revoked by the British government meant the prisoners were treated like ordinary criminals as opposed to having certain rights extended to them as prisoners of war, and as such the men embarked on a campaign to highlight their strife that included no wash protests and hunger strikes.
From the film’s beginning it is clear that Hunger is an unflinching and bleak retelling of these events, with an opening segment of around fifteen minutes including little dialogue, no soundtrack and scenes that are both haunting and visceral in nature. Those incarcerated during this period lived in squalid conditions – their no wash protest included the smearing of fecal matter on their cell walls – and the violence they endured at the hands of the prison guards was extreme. The film emphasises the grim reality of the prisoners’ situation by offering a number of drawn-out long takes that linger on some rather disturbing imagery, as if challenging the viewer to maintain their gaze, and any moments of action are immediately followed by shots that are silent and haunting in nature, leaving the audience with no choice but to sit and digest what it is that they are witnessing.
The manner in which McQueen frames his camera is essential to the film’s effectiveness, with the calm and motionless way in which the shots are constructed giving the impression that the viewer is peeking through a window into this desolate and detached reality. Crucially, Hunger avoids casting a judgemental eye on any of the characters on show, with this highly sensitive political event being retold in a purposefully non-political manner. The film instead seeks to demonstrate the scale of suffering that was endured and never glamourises or demonises either the prisoners or the guards. Whilst it is those who are incarcerated who are more obviously impaired, both physically and mentally, McQueen also allows for the effects the stress and despair of the situation had on the guards to be shown as well, and the end result is that you neither root for or against either side; instead, a feeling of unrelenting pathos is all that really endures.
Michael Fassbender stars as provisional IRA member Bobby Sands and, in a similar manner to McQueen, Hunger was the film that really launched his career. The physical transformation that he undertakes as his character’s hunger strike goes on is the most eye-catching aspect of his performance, but it is more the unrelenting commitment his character had to his cause that Fassbender demonstrates which really makes his portrayal shine. His most impressive moment is a notable scene between Sands and a priest, played by Games of Thrones‘ Liam Cunningham, that sees the pair engage in a lengthy conversation over the course of a single take 17 minutes in length. For a film with minimal dialogue such a scene could seem out-of-place or gimmicky, but the performances from both Fassbender and Cunningham – who spent some time living together so they could rehearse enough to get through the scene – allows for Bobby Sands’ line of thinking and his motivations to become clearer, and the hunger strike he is soon to embark on to be provided with some wider context that gives the viewer more to muse over.
In the end, Hunger concludes as it starts – cold, depressing and without pomp or flair – but its effectiveness is unquestionable. Recreating a highly politicized period of history on screen of stripping it of any overtly political message does not at all blunt the emotional and visceral impact the film has. It instead a film about the sacrifices, morality and belief in a cause, and it will last for some time as a stark reminder of some of the darkest elements that humanity has yet to rid itself of.