Set around the time of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, and the push by IRA prisoners for political prisoner status, of the above mentioned films, it is the one that resonates the most within our current political climate. According to the director, the film has ‘a very human take’ on the events; in an interview with Mark Kermode on The Culture Show, director Steve McQueen also said: ‘every time you have these situations that regard prisons or torture, it’s always something happening in a far off distant country when, you know what, it happened right in our own back yard.’
Yet one thing that must be said about this film, in spite of its political overtones, is that it certainly isn’t politically motivated. Rather, the film looks upon the human impact of all involved in the run up to the hunger strikes. From the tired, knuckle-scarred prison guard to the slow, harrowing death of Bobby Sands, the film doesn’t ask you to judge between heroes and villains. Instead, you watch from a distance with horror as human destroys human.
The fact that you are literally ‘watching on’ is also key to Hunger’s force. The direction of the film constantly positions you, the viewer, as a witness, physically involved but sympathetically removed to what’s going on. A key example of this is one of the best scenes in the film, the conversation between Bobby Sands and Father Dominic Moran. Shot as a one-take, one-camera angle ten-minute scene it’s not only gripping in it’s length but, with just the single camera in use, your attention is on the sentiments expressed, rather than the almost silhouetted people expressing them.
Steve McQueen is a Turner-Prize winning artist who was given the posting as the official war artist for the Iraq conflict in 2003, and the film is co-written by Irish playwright Edna Walsh; together they realise a political, theatrical and visual project, in which each aspect meets the others in perfect harmony. From Bobby Sand’s days as a young boy in golden colours, to the grey, dark final days of his life, the beauty and horror in one man is in what is seen, just as much as in what is said.
This is not to take away from the rest of the cast, however; whilst Michael Fassbender is intensely gripping as Sands, it would be unjustified to call it solely a film about Bobby Sands. In fact Sands does not appear directly in the film until some twenty minutes in and, through prison guard Raymond Lohan and prisoner Gerry, both played by Stuart Graham and Liam McMahon respectively, the sense of turmoil in The Maze prison is established already, before Sands’ entrance is even made.
Having said all of this, though it is a disturbing and at times distressing movie, Hunger is a must-see film. McQueen directs and handles a sensitive issue in fantastic form, with a small but effective cast at his disposal. Truth be told, it’s amazing to think that this is the artist’s first time in the director’s seat; Hunger has even been awarded the prestigious Camera D’or for best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival. No matter how graphic or unsettling it may be, to have a film of ideas released at a time when the lets-have-everything-explode-just-because-we-can carbon-copy action film reigns supreme, is a small triumph in itself.