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British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen has been in the headlines as of late thanks to his new film, Shame with Michael Fassbender. The film has been rated NC-17 in the U.S., but hopefully all the acclaim it has received might be enough to give it some kind of wider distribution. McQueen started his career in the art world, making short films like Deadpan (1997), where he recreated a Buster Keaton gag. In 2008, he made his directorial debut with Hunger, also starring Fassbender.
Hunger tells the story of Bobby Sands (Fassbender), the famous member of the Irish Republican Army who, in 1981, went on a hunger strike so that the British government would give into his set of demands, which included being treated as a political prisoner rather than a criminal. While Sands could have been framed as a hero, McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh chose not to. In fact, he does not even appear in the film until almost 30 minutes in. Instead, McQueen focuses on the human element and how life in the infamous Maze prison in Northern Ireland affects all those within its walls.
The film starts off with the morning rituals of a prison officer (Stewart Graham), which includes checking under his car for a bomb. Next, we get introduced to Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a new prisoner. When he is told to get into prison garb, the audience is given a rare bit of exposition as Gillen refuses to be treated like a criminal. Throughout the film, the audience is given as little exposition as possible, removing a huge weight from McQueen and Walsh’s shoulders. However, we are given bits through dialogue and an occasional voice-over from Margaret Thatcher radio speeches.
After sequences of other prisoners being forced to dress for family visitation and shots of Gillen and his cell mate’s feces-covered cell, we are finally introduced to Sands. Fassbender is given a fantastic entrance, as we see him covered in muck and with a fully-grown beard being held down and shaved by a guard that throws him into a bathtub. This makes the audience uncomfortable and keeps the running theme of McQueen’s unflinchingly detailed portrayal of police brutality.
These scenes are in great contrast to the near-silence that takes up the second half of the film, which shows Sands’ hunger strike. The film is split in two by a 23-minute sequence of Sands facing off against a priest (Liam Cunningham) as he tries to justify his decision. McQueen allows the actual hunger strike to take up the last 20 minutes of the film, which might be just the most harrowing and visceral last act of a film I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to watch as we see Sands -- and Fassbender himself -- wither away with no hint as to whether or not the strike is helping his cause.
Hunger is not about the political situation as much as the human cost of it. McQueen, Walsh and Fassbender created a unique portrait of a man who was determined to be heard by focusing on his actions, dispensing with an attempt to side with either party in the political situation. As an entertaining experience, Hunger might not stand up as a go-to film to watch on a Sunday afternoon, but for those interested in the historical topic or seeing an up-and-coming artist at work, this is an essential film.