Hunger is a terrifying film. It’s the debut feature film from Steve McQueen, best known for beating Tracey Emin to the Turner Prize in 1999. It tells the story of Irish republican inmates holed up in the Maze prison, Belfast protesting against not being treated as political prisoners – specifically the highest profile protestor, Bobby Sands. McQueen is an accomplished video artist, and he’s made the move from galleries to cinemas with arguably the most difficult subject matter he could have selected; the Northern Ireland political situation has been covered impressively in the past, and the instinctively physically repulsive nature of the prisoners’ protests isn’t one that lends itself naturally to your local multiplex. You won’t want to bringing popcorn to this one.
McQueen, however, has suceeded in bringing the story of Sands and the protestors to life in an unflinching, yet visually compelling way. In short, the film never pulls away from showing the brutality of the prison officers and their treatment of the prisoners, or the full horrors of the dirty protests and hunger strikes. Since his death in 1981, Sands has been something of a romantic figure in popular folklore, he’s slightly romanticised here (its certainly a synpathetic portrayal), but its also a warts and all picture of a man pushed to the edge of reason.
It’s refreshing to see a film that takes a new approach to cinematography. Visually, its obvious that McQueen has broached the subject matter as a visual artist, every scene is perfectly composed. Impressively, he never lapses into self-indulgence as one might expect from a video artist – the film comes in at an impressively concise 96 minutes, despite one of the longest one-take scenes in cinema history (this is worth the price of the cinema ticket alone – acted by Michael Fassbender as Sands and Liam Cunningham as his priest).
Hunger is terrifying because of its relentless honesty – there’s no airbrushing (although the naked prisoners did look a little too well toned at times!), no distracting sub plots, no smart-arsed conceits. It’s a naked, uncomfortable but gripping film. Anyone with even a passing interest in British or Irish politics needs to go see it.