Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Even if Hunger were a ten-minute short—nothing but the central scene where Bobby Sands (Prometheus‘ Michael Fassbender) is outlining the plan for the hunger strike, and then defending that plan, to Dominic Moran (The Wind that Shakes the Barley‘s Liam Cunningham), it would be a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Steve McQueen (Twelve Years a Slave)’s directorial debut, an examination of the 1981 hunger strike that changed the face of Belfast-IRA relations, is a powerful piece of work indeed, and much of that is down to Fassbender.
The plot, for those not up on your recent history: in the early eighties, Northern Ireland removed Special Category status from IRA prisoners, classifying them as common criminals rather than prisoners of war. (Special Category status had been granted in 1972, as part of the same negotiations that led to the release of folk hero Gerry Adams.) This led to a string of increasingly extreme protests, with the hunger strike organized by Sands being the last, and most extreme, of the lot, lasting seven months and resulting in the deaths of ten men before being called off. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the second half of the film deals with the hunger strike; the first half sets the scene, showing graphically what life was like for the prisoners once Special Category status had been revoked, as well as the effects of some of the ongiong protests (the blanket protest and the dirty protest are specifically mentioned in the title cards; give wikipedia a look for information if the film doesn’t give you enough).
McQueen is a vastly talented director, and there is a lot of credit to be given to the ability to take what is essentially the story of seventy-five men sitting around doing nothing for seven months and making it into a film as tense as it is. But the real hero of the tale of the making of this film is Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs), who penned that pivotal central scene, as well as the rest of the dialogue here. That’s just as important as McQueen’s arresting steadicam shots (who knew a janitor sweeping a wet hallway could be so riveting?), and with actors of the caliber of Fassbender to deliver that dialogue, there’s really no way this movie could be a loser. But I didn’t expect it to be quite as brilliant as it is, and that’s something. ****