Running time 96 minutes
Written by Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham
Take an anti-nausea pill and put Hunger on your must-see list. After testing the waters on last year’s arty film festival circuit to see if audiences were ready for the 96 minutes of relentless horror on view in Hunger, the U.K.-made chronicle of the death of Bobby Sands, the IRA dissident who committed suicide by starving himself to death in a ghastly Belfast prison in 1981, it’s finally ready for release. It’s strong stuff, repellent and harrowing, but the impressionist style of filmmaker Steve McQueen is very impressive, and I recommend it highly for cast-iron stomachs.
In 1981, more than 2,000 people had already been killed in Ireland’s religious wars, and violent protesters of the Irish Republican Army were being held in the notorious H block of Maze prison (reconstructed from photos and interviews) with no legal redress or human rights. Many of them went on strike, refusing blankets and showers, but Bobby Sands (an electrifying performance by a great actor named Michael Fassbender) took the cause even further. Protesting the British prime minister’s declaration that denied special status to those who committed “criminal acts for political reasons,” he turned his body into an international landscape of war resistance that lasted 66 days. The eyes of the world were focused on his martyrdom, but Mr. McQueen’s brutal film, while refusing to proselytize or endorse the IRA’s tactics and/or Bobby Sands’ radical views, zooms in on the dark corners of a human ordeal nobody outside the filthy prison walls of H Block (named for its shape) could ever have imagined. The result is a ground-breaking canvas of degradation and torture that makes Hieronymus Bosch look like Norman Rockwell.
The film unfolds in three parts, all framed by crushing despair. First, you see the extreme physical degradation—the flesh crawling with maggots; the things the prisoners’ wives smuggle to them inside their orifices; rolling cigarettes out of pages from the Bible; naked men writhing on floors flooded with urine in cells smeared with human excrement; one conscientious guard so appalled by the conditions that he slowly sinks into madness, his brains blown out all over his mother’s face while he visits her in a nursing home. These mind-churning scenes of sacrifice unmistakably parallel the death of Christ. Next, you get the philosophical part of the protest, with a gripping centerpiece featuring an unforgettable 20-minute, 28-page conversation, shot in a single take, between Sands and a sympathetic priest (Liam Cunningham), who tries vainly to convince him his suicide mission has turned into an ego trip without reason that insults God and the very basic human cause he pretends to believe in. The third section is like a nightmarish diary of the grotesque details of the hunger strike itself, from gastrointestinal ulcers to the rotting of Sands’ vital organs as he turns into a living corpse like the inmates at Auschwitz on their way to the ovens. The refusal of British photographer and visual artist McQueen, who wrote the stark screenplay with Enda Walsh, to take sides or stake out a position on the Irish “Troubles” results in a nonpartisan film that seems more like a documentary than a narrative. This defiance will undoubtedly enrage a large segment of the audience seeking moral judgment, but nobody can deny the centrifugal force of the bravura central performance by Irish actor Michael Fassbender.
In the most punishing feat of acting since Christian Bale’s dramatic 63-pound weight loss for The Machinist in 2004, Fassbender goes from a handsome, fit and camera-ready Paul Newmanish type to a skeletal cadaver in the film’s third section. During a two-month hiatus in filming, he fasted, under medical supervision, to the point of what looks like real physical danger. His combination of tough resistance and sensitive vulnerability makes for a performance that is nothing less than devastating. The parallels between Sands’ struggles in 1981, when he died at the age of 27, and the subsequent atrocities of the Iraq war, Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison are inescapable. History repeats itself daily. I’m not sure if Bobby Sands was a hero, a terrorist on a mission that was divinely inspired or a messenger on a fool’s errand, but his death did change the laws in the U.K., and I am certain that no archives can bring to life the history of a time and place like Bobby Sands’ with the same impact as the movies. Hunger is one of the most daring. It’s a brilliant work of power, maturity and vision that should not be missed.