At its simplest, Hunger is the story of Bobby Sands. The 27-year-old Irish Republican Army volunteer died in 1981 while on a hunger strike aimed towards getting him and other Irish Republican inmates’ status as political prisoners. In actuality, however, this film is about much more and much less. We do learn a bit about Sands’ life, but the major focus isn’t on the history of these men, nor does it focus on the politics surrounding them. Hunger is about the simple act of life in this situation, and the strength of conviction that these men had.
Before their determination manifested as a hunger strike, the prisoners of Ireland’s HM Prison Maze were embroiled in a tense dirty strike, and this is where the film begins. The dirty protest wasn’t about missing some deodorant or a few showers, but living in cells where their feces blanketed the walls and maggots wriggled out of rotting piles of food.
Their desperate belligerence met the exasperation of prison guards daily – the former fighting against cavity searches and their cells being hosed down, while the latter struggled with protocol and the dangers of their job. In one initial, seemingly peaceful scene, a guard goes through his morning routine. But when he bends down in the road to make sure no bombs are attached to the car, and his wife anxiously awaits the turn of the key, the dangers and tensions below the surface start to bubble through.
Meanwhile, the tension isn’t masked for those brought into the system. As each man is brought to the prison, they are stripped of their clothes, and marked as belligerent if they protest. They quickly acclimate to the dirty world, sleeping as maggots crawl over them, hiding secret communiqués in piles of rotting food. But for all of their efforts, nothing changes. Tensions rise until Bobby Sands and fellow prisoners decided on a new approach – the hunger strike.
At this point, the film turns from a heart-shattering look into their world, to Sands – his life and his long and painful death. It’s a sudden twist in technique for first-time feature director Steve McQueen (previously a music video director), and while it isn’t the smoothest transition, it is, indeed, a challenging and engaging one punctuated by one continuous, 10-minute take. The remarkable scene, which feels intensely personal, rather than stiff and stagnant, focuses on a conversation between Sands and Father Moran. As the two men sit there, the camera not cutting away, Sands discusses his desperation and the motivations behind the hunger strike, and why it is so important, while Moran tries, in desperate futility, to convince him that death isn’t the answer.
But we know what happens, and McQueen does a heck of a job relaying just what it means to go on a hunger strike. It took Sands 66 days to die, and McQueen relays the long, excruciating reality of the experience – how quickly a body will deteriorate without food, but still take so very long to die. Likewise, Michael Fassbender does an amazing job as Sands – pulling off a transformation that rivals The Machinist and makes the entire process look like reality, rather than a carefully staged film. As Sands’ last days are merged with images and memories of his youth, the beginning meets the end in a way that makes the motivations and determinations real and palpable.
Hunger is not an easy film to watch, and it is certainly not uplifting. However, the film is shot in a respectful manner that pushes us to recognize the reality of this struggle and hopefully realize that it’s more than just an abstract story. Perhaps it should have included more of the politics of the situation, but in the end, it’s about the men who went through this. The journey is worth it.