Synopsis: Inside Belfast's Maze prison in the early '80s, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) faces the brutality of the system and clashes with the Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) as he determines to keep fasting in an effort to trigger change in the classification of IRA prisoners not as criminals but as Prisoners of War.
A confronting look at the cost of unwavering conviction.
Director Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger is an exploration of what it is to die for a cause but when republican prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) succumbs to the inevitable, it’s in far from heroic circumstances.
The film opens in the midst of the infamous ‘Blanket and No-Wash protest’ at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, where the H Block’s republican prisoners have shunned standard-issue uniforms in response to the government’s refusal to grant them special category status.
They refuse showers, smear the walls of their cells with excrement (albeit with artistic flourish), and spill their urine into the corridor on cue and en masse. In scenes that McQueen depicts in unflinching detail, the guards’ response to the protest is increasingly violent. After the riot squad is called in to pull them into line and conduct cavity searches for evidence of widespread message smuggling, Sands ups the ante by initiating a hunger strike.
Though Hunger is clearly Sands’ story, it isn't until well into the film that the focus narrows to his experience. Until then, we spend considerable time following protagonists from both sides of the barbed wire fence.
The film has inevitably sparked criticism in the UK for ‘martyring’ Sands, but though such complaints are understandable given the recent history of The Troubles, they’re also largely unfair. Events are seen to take their toll on both the inmates and their captors, and the lines between victim and aggressor anything but clear-cut. McQueen recognises the guards’ legitimate fears of assassination, and singles out a new riot squad recruit to capture the pivotal moment at which the men are asked to inflict government-sanctioned brutality.
The shot composition is stunning (a snowflake catching on a guard’s grazed knuckle is one of many images that linger), which isn’t really a surprise when you consider McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning artist.
That said, the standout scene of the film is shot in a single take, from a fixed camera. When Sands reveals his plan to his visiting parish priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) grills Sands over the political and personal ramifications of his decision, and points to the futility of his certain death. Sands counters with a boyhood account of sacrifice that makes him "clear of the reasons". The two actors are outstanding in this scene, as they size each other up with rapid-fire barbs, interrogate the merits of Sands’ decision, and emerge with a mutual if begrudging, respect for the other’s position. It’s a remarkable exchange that in the tradition of great theatre, works on the strength of smart dialogue and the acting chops of both Cunningham and Fassbender.
After this scene, Sands is virtually silent as he wastes away before our eyes, and it’s here that McQueen’s direction takes a sharp U-turn. Up to this point, life in H Block has been presented in such stark, silent, suffocating reality, that the third act’s attempt to venture into the dying Sands’ imagination sits uneasily with the rest of the film.
We see his youthful self sit by his emaciated elder’s deathbed, we see flashbacks to golden sunsets, and a flock of imagined birds circles the prison ward. It’s a jarring departure and of course, one that may be intentional; these scenes could well be a device by McQueen to show that the fierce and determined firebrand Bobby Sands has given in to sentiment after all.
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