Last Meal

c sarrishunger 002 Last MealHunger
Running time 96 minutes
Written by Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham

Steve McQueen’s Hunger, from a screenplay by Enda Walsh and Mr. McQueen, provides a harrowing yet lyrical account of the fatal hunger strike of Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, in 1981. Sands was the first of ten IRA prisoners to die of starvation in the Maze hunger strike.

Mr. McQueen reveals in the film’s Production Notes that he was tempted at one time to make the movie with absolutely no dialogue. As it is, Hunger is mostly a visual experience, dealing as it does with implacable foes over centuries with nothing to say to each other besides the jeering insults endemic to the two warrior tribes.

The picture begins with Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) and his wife (Laine Megaw) having breakfast before Raymond drives off to work, though not before he crawls under the car to make sure the IRA has not planted a bomb there. At Maze, we see him repeatedly washing his hands, his knuckles bloody from beating recalcitrant IRA prisoners.

Gradually the prisoners are seen in their daily rituals, both those imposed upon them by their jailers, and those they have devised for themselves to communicate with each other, and with the outside world.

A young new inmate, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), is visibly terrified by his impending ordeal, but still has enough gumption to refuse to wear a “criminal’s” uniform. For his defiance, Davey is thrust into a filthy cell cohabited by Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), who undertakes to show Davey the ropes in his new and brutal environment. Gerry communicates with the outside world through notes exchanged with his girlfriend (Karen Hassan) on her weekly visits.

Hence, it takes a while for Bobby Sands, the film’s ultimate protagonist, to emerge amid the daily cruelties and humiliations in the Maze Prison. In the middle of the film, there is a long, single-take colloquy between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). Father Moran tries vainly to talk Sands out of going through with his threatened hunger strike both because it would jeopardize his immortal soul, and, also, because it would harm Sands’ noble cause. Father Moran’s well-intentioned arguments fall on deaf ears, and the final movement of the IRA martyrdom is set into motion.

Hunger is a singularly austere viewing experience, and as Mr. McQueen notes in his interview, it is unusually resonant at a time when America, like Britain before it, is contemplating its own international penal excesses in Iraq and elsewhere.

asarris@observer.com