HUNGER directed by Steve McQueen (2008)

I’ve been reading a lot about Steve McQueen’s new movie Shame which is released this week.  Pieces about the British born director usually include praise for his debut full length movie, Hunger, released in 2008 which also stars Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender .  While waiting for Fassbender the sex addict, I thought I’d watch him as the IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands.

And what a remarkable performance it is. There can’t be many actors prepared to starve themselves almost to death to play a role but this is what he does in order to act out Sands’ final 66 days on earth. He embarked on a 10 week crash diet in LA which, by the end, had him surviving on just 600 calories a day. He ended up weighing  59 kg which was almost the same weight as that of Sands when he died and perilously close to the point of no return when your vital organs start giving up.

When you see shots of him with visible bones, the first thought is that this is a clever piece of Photoshop style trickery, but, when you realise he really looked like this, it is doubly shocking. Apparently, many people thought Fassbender was suffering from cancer and it’s amazing that he had sufficient energy to play the final scenes. To embark on such a no holds barred degree of commitment shows the level of belief must have had in McQueen’s movie. You wouldn’t  go through this self-torture for a second-rate production.

Steve McQueen

McQueen, in his own way, is not a man for half measures. He pulls no punches in this movie and makes no attempt to gloss over the horror of the ‘dirty protest’ in the Maze Prison or impose a glib moral perspective on the event. We see walls caked in faeces and the appalling conditions in the cells. It doesn’t celebrate or condone the intransigent stance of the IRA prisoners who were intent on seeking political status for their crimes.

But McQueen doesn’t judge them either, which in Thatcherite terms is akin to giving them the ‘oxygen of publicity’. While this is not a film which overtly takes political sides, I wouldn’t describe it as apolitical. Playing the rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher while the camera focuses on the piss and shit in the prison corridors is not adopting a neutral position.

But what McQueen does do, is to show how the political masters created, and to a large extent, stoked the fires of resentment  by refusing to grant any concessions whatsoever. The effect of this was to put the prison officers in the front line which meant that brutal confrontation and dehumanizing labour was a daily reality. These officers were as much victims of the system as the prisoners. The statistics presented on-screen at the end confirm this; Bobby Sands was one of ten hunger strikers who died and  sixteen prison officers were murdered during the protest.  The ruthlessness of the IRA killers is shown by the shooting of one officer while he is visiting his senile mother in a hospice. The mother sits impassively despite being soaked in the blood of her son who lies face down in her lap.

The centrepiece of the movie is an unedited seventeen minute section where Sands has asked for a meeting with an Ulster priest (played by Liam Cunningham) to explain why he plans to embark on the hunger strike. In this riveting scene the two men are held in a static shot with dim lighting, forcing viewers to focus on the tension and dynamic behind their words. These are two intelligent men whose perspective on the troubles is based on experience rather than political platitudes. What also makes this great is that the priest is as worldly and cynical as Sands, although he does not see any virtue in what he regards as martyrdom. Sands is immovable:  “I will act, I will not stand by”, he says.

Hunger will rightly be regarded as the movie that launched two remarkable talents. In their own ways McQueen, the director, and Fassbender, the actor are as fearless and uncompromising as the real life characters portrayed. It is a reminder how exhilarating filmmaking can be when being unflinchingly true to the subject is kept at the top of the agenda.

Related links:
Interview with Steve McQueen (MUBI)
A great right hook of a role (Fassbender interviewed in The Guardian)