At once raw and formal, minimal yet graphic, “Hunger” by director Steve McQueen (the black British filmmaker, not the dead American icon of cool) challenges the audience by alternately rubbing its face in and keeping its distance from the physical and psychological brutality the British visited upon IRA prisoners in the early 1980s.
McQueen ostensibly is retelling the story of the hunger strike in Maze Prison in 1981 by paramilitary prisoners. They struck – after other attention-getting protests (including refusing to wear prison uniforms and smearing their cells with excrement) – over their demand to be treated as political prisoners, rather than as criminals or terrorists. Sands’ section of the film is only the focus of the final half-hour.
Even then, all you really see is Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) wasting away, occasionally being bathed or treated for bedsores. After a startlingly filmed dialogue scene between Sands and a priest (a single shot of the two of them, from the side, at a table, talking and smoking), who tries to talk him out of the hunger strike before it starts, there is barely a word spoken. When Sands’ body is wheeled out of the prison hospital, the camera acts like a bystander, static, watching the gurney roll past, then down the hall and out the door.
For that matter, other than a few printed sentences establishing the scene at the beginning and summing up at the end, the rest of the film is almost dialogue-free as well (with the exception of sound bites from Margaret Thatcher, the iron fist behind the policies). We initially see a man soaking bruised knuckles in a sink of water. He’s eventually revealed to be one of the prison guards tasked with beating the prisoners to soften them up for shearing or cleaning. He winds up dead, shot through the head while visiting his catatonic mother in a nursing home.
The film spends most of its first half on a pair of other IRA prisoners, who alternately decorate their cell walls with feces and finds ways to funnel their urine under the door of their cell so it flows into the hall. They’re never identified – just two more prisoners who will run a gantlet of club-bearing guards who flail at prisoners en route to them being given viciously invasive rubber-gloved searches (a rough finger up the ass, then a forced search of the mouth with the same hand) and cold-water baths (a more on-the-nose version of waterboarding).
Unlike a film like 1996’s “Some Mother’s Son,” McQueen has no interest in arguing morality or politics, or examining the causes of or offering solutions for the disputes. This is stripped-down story-telling, showing the struggle and letting the viewer draw his own conclusions.
Which, given the subsequent events, seems to be that fear provokes unforgivable excesses, whether it’s England during “the Troubles” or the Bush Administration post-9/11.
“Hunger” is tough going – and compelling cinema throughout.