Of the many impressive directorial debuts to come out within the 2000’s, there’s not quite another one much like British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s own Hunger. A film like Hunger is the sort that is so hard to even see as a first effort, because it’s also a film whose subject would be so difficult to capture so seamlessly in a directorial debut. But the very roots of Steve McQueen’s best tendencies as a director already feel so fully formed, whether it be the visible anger that you feel in the film’s more quiet moments or the long shots lingering upon every small detail of what its characters feel, everything flows far too perfectly in Hunger. But if there’s anything that keeps Hunger within one’s head, it would also have to be the manner to which its own political commentary has retained its relevance in a modern world, despite our means of convincing ourselves that we truly have moved past mistakes that are inevitably going to be repeated. It is a film that feels every bit as painful as its subject matter would sound, but there is never a moment in which Steve McQueen ever lets go of how visceral it feels to be within that very setting by creating a world of pure upset.
Telling the story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike in which a group of Irish republican prisoners sought to regain political status after it had been revoked by the British government in 1976, Hunger isn’t simply the story of Bobby Sands but the movement that he had influenced and the very effect it had upon Ireland at the time. These people would not only refuse to eat for lengthy periods of time or even the rest of their lives, even going on a “dirty protest” by refusing to bathe and also by smearing their cell block walls with excrement – only for the purpose of being heard by the people. It was a movement that didn’t only change the United Kingdom, but also one that changed how many who have fought for their own causes could find a way for their voices to be heard, no matter how much they put their lives at risk. But this isn’t simply Bobby Sands’s story, for he only enters near the half hour mark of this 96-minute long film, it is all about what people saw in what would eventually claim lives – yet not at the hands of the government. This is a film all about how Sands brought people together to listen, for he knew what it was he was fighting for – and he always stood by that belief, at the cost even of his own morality.
McQueen never shies away from what it is that Sands had believed in, but you still recognize human instincts in what it is that he was doing. He knew that his fellow inmates were only going to be recognized as nothing more than mere filth under the ruling of Margaret Thatcher, whose vocal presence haunts the film every now and then. You never see her face, but in those words that she utters on the screen you feel nothing else but pure contempt. You feel nothing but pure disgust because of the way in which she had reduced her own prisoners down to, no matter by how much the government then would have known what these men were fighting for. You feel nothing but disgust at the fact that their cause would have already been rendered worthless, so the prisoners fight back by giving these authorities a picture of what they had already been turned into – starting with the smearing of excrement on the cell block walls or through pouring urine down the hallways. These are people who are fighting against that classification of being mere “dirt” because their imprisonment puts them within such a position their government has no time for them, by showing all of that ugliness right up close.
While Bobby Sands remains the focus of McQueen’s unflinching debut, this is not a film that merely paints his cause as being one that was only going to be for the greater good. We already knew that the act of going on a hunger strike for as long as possible would even come to the point where it would be claiming the lives of these men, but you ask yourself if they truly die as martyrs the way that they believe they did. But in a standout sequence, you have an unbroken long take of Bobby Sands conversing with a pastor, who tries to talk him out of the protest. But in that moment, you already recognize the power of protest; because Sands’s point of view is one that will never change. He knows that he was imprisoned because of those whom he affiliated himself with, and he wants the government to recognize that in the hunger strike that he and his many fellow inmates have taken part in. But because McQueen never shies away from even the most cruel treatment that these prisoners have suffered, it also becomes a pivotal moment for you to ask yourself if this was truly something that had been worth fighting for, as McQueen even allows his viewers to identify with Sands, not for that affiliation but in that small space where he knew he would already face the risk of ending his own life.
Michael Fassbender’s role is one of, if not the very best of his own career by far. In a role much like that of Bobby Sands, Fassbender makes you feel that very fear that Sands had faced just for the mere act of standing by his own words. As he grows skinnier by the minute, McQueen’s focus on this physical change can evoke the feeling of physical discomfort. But what’s most admirable about Fassbender’s own transformation into Bobby Sands is the fact that he feels every bit as unchangeable as Bobby truly did, by showing the very essences of what it was that he wanted people to see about the government. You feel every fit of rage on the spot, every moment of physical unease, every ounce of that pain which he had gone through with every minute that McQueen keeps you trapped within that very space which Sands shares. But most importantly, you feel that fear he will never be able to see the outside world again, he will never live to see the very impact that he had left on the many people who had heard his cries in the many years to come.
It takes a great deal of guts to tackle such a harrowing subject for a first-time effort behind the camera, but the approach that Steve McQueen employs here is one that recognizes how difficult it feels to be a witness to such cruelty. But something that stands out to me about Hunger is the way in which Steve McQueen chooses to express his own anger at the government for only choosing to see themselves as being above even their own citizens. So much so, that it would even have them forget about their faults, something that remains so prevalent in today’s time. But this film still speaks a great deal about the power of the act of protest. Because McQueen doesn’t recognize protest simply as being part of political will but as part of human instinct, especially with a case much like this one. You still feel how that act can drain oneself in that process, yet it is still something worth fighting for. For in those final moments of the life of Bobby Sands, you feel united by listening to his reasoning for striking. And overall, it still stuns me that this is a first effort at telling a narrative feature, but you already feel McQueen’s confidence from first frame to last.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via IFC Films.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Screenplay by Steve McQueen, Enda Walsh
Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith, Robin Gutch
Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
Release Date: October 31, 2008
Running Time: 96 minutes