Directed by Steve McQueen

Written by Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen

Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan

Hunger on paper must have been one interesting sell to Irish producers, especially after immediately turned down by the Irish Film Board. Although they must have jumped at another version of more British injustice during the turbulent and violent cause and effect in Northern Ireland now delicately tagged as “The Troubles”, having London-born modern artist Steve McQueen – an art wunderkind specializing in modernist minimalism whose most recent film had shown the refinement and production of the mineral columbite-tantalite – was something altogether different.

Several independent companies and charities from Ireland both northern and southern picked up the film as a possible risk, but McQueen would prove to be as talented and astonishing a debut filmmaker as an artist.  His visual styling and stunning – bordering between strange beauty and vivid horror – imagery create and maintain the film, but the knowledge he applies in both his co-penned script and pieced-together situations with subtle but haunting dialogue make the subtext as engrossing as the subject.  Hunger is peerless in the historical drama genre, and is simply not only the most unique but best film to depict the effects of the conflicts of Northern Ireland since 1991’s In The Name of the Father.

Flying under the radar of major media and organizations in the United States– although immediately honored by the Criterion Collection upon its release – Hunger has accumulated several accolades from festivals worldwide, particularly McQueen’s 2008 reception of Cannes’ prestigious Caméra d’Or for first-time filmmakers.

Hunger is not a straight-laced film, and follows no distinctly formulaic plot line until the last thirty minutes, in which the literal meaning of the title comes into play.  It opens with the introduction of prison officer Lohan, who gets ready in the morning before going out to start his vehicle – a moment watched with close anxiety from the parlor window by his wife – before making his way to the film’s main setting – Maze prison and its inmates.

Introductory text and added audio track from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sets the situation up: dozens of Irish Republican Army paramilitaries have been imprisoned for varying degrees at the Maze for their crimes, but have not been treated as political prisoners – as is their want – but as common criminals.  We follow the recent arrival of new prisoner Davey, who demands to wear his own clothing to a room full of indifferent guards, before stripping in cold silence in front of them.  He enters a dank, disgusting cell cohabitated by cellmate Gerry, who has let his hair and beard grow long and smears his feces all over the walls and lives in total maggot-ridden squalor.  This is then shown to be part of a protest – to object to their treatment as criminals – as in one scene on cue all prisoners on Davey and Gerry’s block dump their piss out under their doors into the hallway.

The introduction of Bobby Sands – played by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender – almost halfway through the film, happens violently and viscerally, in imitation of his life.  Pulled from his cell like a wild animal, he scratches and bites at his captors while being led to the bathroom under the eye of Officer Lohan, who responds to being spit on by Sands by throwing two punches, one that hits on target, another which misses and hits the wall with a crunching slap of skin.  Sands’s hair and beard are forcibly sheared off, producing rivers of blood from his scalp and face as he resists.  He’s knocked unconscious after being thrown into a bathtub and viciously brushed.

After being told to wear their new uniforms – red and yellow-colored sweater-vest combinations – ordered by snickering officers, Sands leads a hall-wide violent protest, in which the prisoners destroy their changing rooms and rip apart their insulting new clothes.  Dressed in nothing but blankets, they are subsequently forced to run through a gauntlet of riot guards, who beat their clubs against their dirty plastic shields like Roman gladiators while chanting in unison.

The much-celebrated next scene concerns Sands discussing the implementation of a new hunger strike to get the attention of Thatcher and end his fellow mates’ criminal status to his priest.  It is an unbroken 17-minute sequence of dialogue in which both men discuss, unfold and argue from a fixed angle at a single table in an empty prison meeting room.  It’s the longest single shot ever in a mainstream film, the last record-holder 1992’s The Player in which the scene in question was eight minutes long.

Liam Cunningham, the eminent Irish actor who plays the priest, reportedly was told by McQueen on the first day that he was thinking of doing the whole scene in one shot.  To which Cunningham, stunned, apparently replied, “Are you out of your mind?”

To prepare, Cunningham moved into Fassbender’s Belfast flat, and the two actors practiced their lines 15-20 times a day for five days. The scene in totality is around 23 minutes long – the only time that Cunningham is in the film – and after doing four takes in those five days, McQueen took the fourth as the choice for the film, a scene the director apparently seriously considered axing several times.

Purveyors and addicts of cinema are glad he didn’t, as the scene is a monumental undertaking and subsequently a treat to behold.  Fassbender smokes three cigarettes in real-time succession during the 17 minutes of unbroken dialogue, in which both actors show off their astonishing acting talents.  The scene alone proves why Cunningham has been one of the most recognizable and seminal Irish actors in the last twenty years, and why Michael Fassbender – who stole Inglorious Basterds with his handsome looks and multi-lingual confidence – is quickly becoming the new face of the international cinema scene.

With undeterred drive and stubborn pride – unconcerned at both how his body will suffer and how he’ll leave his young son behind is he dies – Sands goes through with his hunger strike brainchild.  It will consist of one prisoner starting the strike every two weeks (to prevent cessation due to not wanting to see fellow prisoners suffering together) until the British government agrees to their demands and ceases their criminal statuses.

The final scene happens very quickly, but the fact that it is not drawn out does not overcome its horrible succession of images detailing Sands’ physical decline.  He lives out the rest of his days (The real Bobby Sands died after 66 days’ starvation) in the prison hospital, with his liver and kidneys failing, his stomach producing painful and hemorrhagic ulcers, and his skin opening up into bloody, mucus-filled pustules.

His parents come to visit him on the final day, where he opens his eyes, mistily recognizing his mother, and dreams of his youth, when he used to run regularly across Ireland’s green-drenched countryside, before succumbing to death.

The quick restatement of this plot by me, not quote conclusive and with some separate and important scenes skipped, is due to the fact that despite its 90 minute-length, Hunger has in it so many telling scenes and hidden, revealing images that they alone tell a story much longer and even deeper; and to list and describe them all would turn off all but the most interested reader and, what is worse, dilute the experience of one looking to watch it.

But there are several scenes I, as a film lover, cannot help myself from detailing.  Lohan, played by Stuart Graham, is in very few scenes but they are rife with importance.  As he eats in the film’s beginning, the camera sits on his lap and watches the crumbs of bread fall onto napkin draped across his legs.  He stands alone against the prison’s wall in the falling snow smoking sullenly, and in an earlier scene he pools a sink with warm water and delicately places the bleeding knuckles of his right hand under the water.  In the mirror we see the reflection of his pain-stricken face, and later in the film we find out how he gets the particular injury – the punch that hit the wall instead of Bobby Sands’ already bloodied face.  He doesn’t speak a word of dialogue until his final scene, but it’s the nonverbal communication in these early scenes that make his character so interesting and his character’s conclusion so unsettling.

The weather – the film takes place in December – plays a role in the early sequences as both a cleanser and an aspect of freedom, as Davey stands shirtless next to his cell window, where a mangled gap in the wire mesh allows a few stray snowflakes to cling to his skin as he looks down on them with wonder and sadness.

In another unbroken scene – not as astounding but equally mesmerizing – the camera sits in the far end of the hallway, the dull prison lights shimmering off of the pools of prisoner urine sitting on the floor, as a guard arrives with a bucket on the far end of the hallway.  He dumps the cleaner on each pool and then starts way back at the far end, methodically mopping all the way down to the camera itself.  It is the most overt showing of artistic expression by McQueen in the film, but fits the film’s narrative as well as any piece of informational dialogue.

The self-imposed degradation of Bobby Sands is the film’s climactic conclusion, and in it McQueen puts forth his most uninhibited barrage of visual synesthesia.

Fassbender himself restricted his body to 600 calories a day to adequately mimic how Sands’ body succumbed to his fatal protest. No aspect of Sands’ suffering is left out, as we see firsthand his deprivation and painful decline into physiological oblivion.

Sands struggles to move his bowels in front of a watching, sympathetic doctor, and the camera unflinchingly shows the horrific result.  A slow pan down from the back of his neck to his buttocks shows countless, almost paralleling open sores, and despite his lack of feeling due to his starvation, Sands flinches as the doctor applies a white salve to the worst of the bleeding sores.  Several orderlies attempt to clean the stains from his sores that have seeped all the way to the mattress, and after finding it hopeless, simply flip the mattress over.

In what is my favorite scene – the one that still haunts me when I think of Hunger – Sands is lying motionless in a bathtub, the water murky and discolored.  The orderly watching him grasps the sides of the tub with both hands, and on his right set of knuckles is tattooed “U.D.A.”, standing for the Ulster Defence Association, a vigilante unionist  group that incurred violent wrath from the I.R.A for their loyalty, while dispensing their own aggressive brutality in result.

Sands recognizes the tattoo and its meaning, and as he attempts to get out of the bathtub loses balance and collapses onto the floor, all as the orderly watches in cold silence.  He then sullenly picks up the body of Sands as though it weighed as much as a doll, and takes him back to his bed.

Visual directors have had a mixed result when they enter the highly pressurized and antagonizing world of film directing.  But McQueen, given free rein for his vision, shows his incredible knack for a particular style of storytelling through thoughtful narrative (the script was written with the help of prominent Irish playwright Enda Walsh) combined with his undeniable talent for imagery that stems from his gathered experience.

Director Steve McQueen instructing Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

It is a telling fact that McQueen left Goldsmiths Collegein 1993 after years of studying fine art to attend prestigious Tisch School in New York, only to leave abruptly after complaining that his professors were not experimental enough for him.

“They wouldn’t let you throw the camera up in the air,” he said as one reason for leaving.

Many traditional filmmakers and self-described auteurs would have advised against much of what McQueen experimented with on the set of Hunger, throwing a camera into the air the least of their worries certainly.  But his accomplishment is a total success not in his execution of a completely expressive work, but in his patience and understanding in tackling a very controversial subject with no reservations; not adulterating his own unique vision but instead integrating it to produce the most distinctive and entirely original work form the British Isles in a decade.

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