Film Review: Hunger

A paradoxically artful, visually impressive look at one of the ugliest and most infamous episodes of the violent struggle, known as “The Troubles,” decades ago to bring Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland. But this acclaimed film may

It’s not that artist Steve McQueen’s impressive feature debut Hunger, honored at many film festivals, won’t please the more discriminating among filmgoers. But its grim, graphic, cold depiction of Belfast prison life for IRA captives in the early 1980s and the slow wasting away of legendary inmate Bobby Sands (effectively played here by Michael Fassbender), who succumbed to self-imposed starvation, is a tough sell.

Minimalist in its approach and unconventionally structured, the film functions more as a stylistic exercise than an exercise in putting forth a hard-line political agenda or a sociopolitical point of view. Yes, McQueen makes of Sands a convincing martyr, but is the punishment worth the cause?

Devoid of any political or historical context, Sands’ horrid sacrifice, especially as he seems to have decent, loving parents, is more troubling than noble. In fact, heroes and villains here are hard to come by, as neither side—the extremist Irish Republicans or the British—is vilified.

Hunger begins quietly enough with Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), an average middle-class police officer setting off for another day of work at Belfast’s Maze Prison, where a notorious block holds captured IRA members. The focus shifts to two of these prisoners, seasoned inmate Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) and newly arrived Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan). The film then spends considerable time showing the horrendous, filthy prison conditions that the inmates themselves create by refusing to bathe or wear prison-issued clothes, smearing cell walls with feces, and smuggling messages in orifices. Officer Lohan only emerges later in the story when he visits his mother at a rest home and is shot by the IRA in cold blood. Such terrorism proves relevant in light of Sands’ futile mission to get the British authorities to recognize his fellow convicted IRA members as political prisoners, not terrorists.

Belatedly, the imprisoned Sands becomes part of the story with a remarkable, long face-to-face scene (done in only a few takes) of him conversing with Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunnigham) across a table. He shares his demand for political recognition and his plan for the hunger strike should it be denied. Craftily, the priest eases into the task of dissuading Sands by suggesting the imposed starvation will be no more than suicide—but to no avail.

What follows (in an astounding performance from Fessbender) is Sands’ refusal to eat and his eventual deterioration. There is also a flashback to the inmate as a young boy who, rightly and justly, relieves an injured foal of its suffering. The act relates to his own extreme sacrifice on behalf of “a united Ireland that is right and just.”

If the message of Hunger is that the Republican struggle was senseless or that Sands’ sacrifice ennobled the cause, it is too muted to trigger meaningful conversation. As for the historic Republican/British antagonism, neither side emerges as admirable, and even the occasional voice-over of the much-maligned, brittle Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, suggests reason. There was, of course, brutality on both sides (most notably the “Bloody Sunday” massacre), but nothing like the recent lopsided attack by Israel on Gaza.
Still, Hunger is always interesting to watch and even a pleasure to digest as rarified entertainment. It is yet another film that must be respected like crazy even as it fights for life in today’s brutal marketplace.