Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham
Runtime: 95 minutes
Steve McQueen seemed to come from nowhere. With no directorial credits except for a short film only a minute long, he made a film called Hunger in 2008; a film that I saw exactly one month ago to this day, and have only just given a second viewing. Hunger is more than just a film; it is a bold statement, and a directorial magnum opus for McQueen, who achieved recent success with last year’s Shame.
Hunger is based on the true story of an Irish republican named Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender in a performance that transcends the normal expectation for even a great cinematic experience. Fassbender, quite possibly the best actor working today, absolutely throws himself into the role of Sands, risking his physical health to portray a man whose admirable rebellion sees him refusing to wash or eat. In the film’s most famous sequence, a 20+ minute conversation with a priest (including one unbroken take lasting sixteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds), he discusses his personal strength and motivation, as the film turns from a brutal physical battle into a scarring emotional one.
Sands is not introduced as the film’s central character until around half an hour into Hunger, but the mysterious and enigmatic opening scenes are just as compelling, lucid and frighteningly eerie; in fact, it may be this questionable opening sequence that is the film’s strongest section. That’s not to say it ever loses its strength, because it doesn’t; but this is a film that is just as interesting and emotionally evocative even when it hasn’t yet made its point clear, and is still shrouded in mystery. The second act of the film, with its 23 minute conversation, is like a relieving break from the violence and horror of the first; yet Sands’ troubles and the beginning scars of his physical breakdown are still hauntingly present, and his dialogue, unshakably coarse, is rough and given strength by the scenes preceding it.
When Fassbender is not flooring the audience with his physical transformation and emotional strength (and even while he is), McQueen is stunning us with his exceptional, auteurist direction. His long takes are harrowing and sharply executed; the film’s horrific violence is viscerally shot so that scarring prison beatings feel genuinely painful to watch, and McQueen’s regular use of both static and handheld camera angles allows him to adjust the mood appropriately from cold and lifeless to painfully moving. There is one shot I absolutely love that most directors wouldn’t have included – and if they did, it wouldn’t be held for as long as McQueen holds it. It is a static camera shot of a janitor sweeping water down a prison hallway, and it lasts a long time. I like shots like these; after scenes of intense observation and powerful detail, they give us time to fully soak in what has happened. This particular scene gives us time to do that, but is also hypnotic and disturbing to watch. After the brutal, bloody violence and horror prisoners are subjected to, there is the cleaning up, a silent but equally long and important event. This hallway shot may be my favourite shot in the movie.
By the time we reach its end, Hunger resonates in our minds and remains firmly planted there. It never ceases to be a truly exhilarating, chilling experience. Each moment, even during the slow in-between scenes that seem to be there simply to enhance the mood, is incredibly poignant and devastating. This is a consistently depressing and revelatory film about a time in history that is perhaps never considered as seriously as it should be. The 1993 film In the Name of the Father saw Daniel Day-Lewis play a man wrongly accused of an IRA bombing whose life in prison was as harsh and brutal as you could imagine; that was a great film, but Hunger is even better; few movies have us barely able to tear our eyes away from someone doing something as simple as sweeping a hallway. Hunger finds turmoil and terror in the simplest of events, painting a vivid portrait of the hell of prison life, and the power and importance of revolt, especially if one man’s daring and influential self-destruction can be learned from, appreciated, and remembered.