Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
The fight between Catholic and Protestant sides in Northern Ireland has devastated that country since the late 1960s. Each side has visited monolithic brutality on the other in of the greatest displays of community inflicting such cruelty on itself. But the cruelty that was the worst, was that of employees of the British empire on IRA members imprisoned in facilities across the country. Director Steve McQueen never give support for the terrorist actions of the IRA, but advocates that all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, deserve humane treatment.
The film’s focus is real life IRA soldier Bobby Sands (Fassbender). While the film doesn’t explicitly cover his activities with the IRA, he was no saint. He helped ferry weapons for the movement and was involved in the bombing of a furniture store in 1976. The film chooses to portray Sands as a figure unwilling to budge an inch for the brutal authority crashing down around his head. In this effort he has allowed himself to become dehumanized. Simply put, he has been caged and treated like an animal, so he will behave like one. Sands smears the walls of his cell with his own feces, allows the daily meals to rot and mold in a corner, and funnels his bed pan (synchronized with the other prisoners) out into the hallway. Is it vile? Yes. But there something innate within us that despise authority that wishes to break us, so it comes off as bizarrely admirable.
Bobby’s most memorable, and final, triumph came when he began a hunger strike in 1981 which took his life after several painful months of starvation. Michael Fassbender destroyed his body through malnutrition to take on the gaunt, sunken appearance of a Holocaust victim. He become the specter of death with additional help from an incredibly talented makeup department. His back is covered in open sores, he’s unable to urinate for the prison doctor’s physical, and he stains his sheets with black, acrid blood. The moments before Sands passes are truly powerful. The film moves into his consciousness as hallucinations of his younger self appear and his mind travels back to long distance race where he and both Prot and Catholic youths ran together, in fields of golden amber. Director McQueen doesn’t want you to take the IRA’s side, he wants you to realize how irrelevant any side is, and simply see a man dying.
The aesthetic choice made by McQueen are magnificent. For the first 30 minutes of the film there is little or no dialogue. Only 50 minutes in is there an actual conversation between two people for extended amount of time. Here Sands and a priest from his community debate the point of standing in defiance of authority. The priest tells Sands he must submit to the uniform being enforced on the prisoners and Sands simply won’t budge. Once again, neither side wins in the debate. They simply come to the conclusion that neither of them will change their ideas about it. Hunger is one of the best examples of director using the language of cinema to tell a visceral and moving story. There is no maudlin sentimentality, yet there is a deep emotional core. Not for those lacking a strong constitution, but one of the most amazing British films I’ve ever seen.