Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger, is a very powerful but draining telling of a sad moment in an even sadder history of Northern Ireland. Our initiation to the conflict starts with prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) checking his battered knuckles and his car for an IRA bomb. We are quickly introduced to the pattern of passive resistance and systemic violence when novice inmate, newly convicted paramilitary Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), joins Gerry (Liam McMahon) in a cell totally decorated with faeces.
We see the personal horror of both captive and gaoler in their eyes. This historical drama is a story told visually with little dialogue used to further the tension.
The exception is a remarkable 22-minute exchange between protagonist IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Catholic priest Fr Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). For most of the scene the camera does not move, as Bobby defends his decision to organise a hunger strike to the death.
Some understanding of the historical context certainly helps but it is strong enough to reach out to an audience without that background. The time: 1981. The place: Maze prison, outside Belfast. The action: the protest against wearing prison uniforms as part of the Provisional IRA’s campaign to achieve political status for its incarcerated members. The theme: violence against and by the State; political terror and the ugly responses to it.
This is not a pretty picture. Blood, excrement and urine flow freely. Violence and murder are presented graphically and unsentimentally. There are no good guys. This is not In the Name of the Father. There are no innocents. There is no redemption. This is the dark side writ large. Hate seems to be the main driving force for both sides.
It is easy to react to this film in terms of modern politics. The Independent’s film review saw it in these terms:
This enthralling account of Sands' 66 days on hunger strike to try to get better conditions for IRA prisoners, seems especially pertinent at a time when the atrocities of Abu Ghraib remain vivid.However, if you're looking for a partisan political message this is the wrong place.
It would also be easy to blame religion, history, or politicians for all the inhumanity of the “troubles”. This film tries to tell what happened without judgment. Yet it leaves the film goer feeling as battered as the inmates after running the gauntlet.
Hunger is not a particularly sympathetic portrayal of Bobby Sands or his cause. The exception comes in the flashbacks as he waits to die. We meet Bobby as a boy, the young cross-country runner who stands up for what he thinks is right. It is the single-mindedness of a martyr but Hunger is not really about heroism and martyrdom. They are all victims.
McQueen, who is also co-writer, told Timeout:
‘I’m not concerned with balance,’ he says. ‘I don’t think people are bad in general, but circumstances make them do what they have to.’The opening credits reverberate as metal rubbish bin lids are hammered onto the road. This was a signal used in Belfast communities to warn locals that British military or police were prowling republican areas. Later, riot squad police echo this siren when they beat batons onto shields in unison, before using them on the prisoners. A younger member of their cohort hides during the slaughter, a solitary objector to the madness all around.
Director interview: Steve McQueen
Hunger is a brutal experience. Do not go expecting some triumph of the human spirit. In this case the clichés mostly belong to the reviews.