Watching grown men smear walls with faeces with their bare hands, hardly elicits thoughts of beauty, and yet, somehow you walk away from Steve McQueen’s Hunger feeling just that.
You will be thoroughly disturbed, your emotions will be raw, and your stomach will be turning, but you will walk away knowing one thing: You have just witnessed the most beautiful of filmmaking.
Based on the last six weeks in the life of Bobby Sands, Hunger is an onslaught of the senses. Made up of intense visuals and sounds, there is roughly only 30 minutes of talking throughout the entirety of the 96-minute film, an artistic accomplishment that sounds alarmingly dull but actually manages to keep viewers mesmerised, thanks to the artistic background of first-time director Brit Steve McQueen.
Co-written with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, the film is broken into very distinct storylines, opening with Maze prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham ) as he goes about his usual day: Preparing for work by soaking his battered knuckles in water, eating a good traditional Irish breakfast, and then checking under his car for bombs left by the IRA. When he arrives at work the viewers are then exposed to the horrific conditions at the prison as we are introduced to Davey (Brian Milligan ), a new IRA prisoner, who refuses to wear the prison uniform and is labelled, like his fellow protesting prison-mates, as “non-cooperative”. Upon entering his cell he discovers his roommate has smeared the walls with his faeces, and, after a brief period of disillusionment, soon begins his role in resisting the prison authority.
And then, amongst brutal beatings and harsh cavity checks, we finally meet Bobby Sands (brilliantly played by German-born, Irish-raised Michael Fassbender ), although he isn’t given a name until several scenes later. Determined and hard, Sands is portrayed as somewhat of a lad’s lad who rolls his cigarettes from pages of the Bible and doesn’t show an overly emotional attachment to the son he is going to leave without a father.
In the film’s most poignant scene, a 22-minute sequence shot in a single take, Sands sits with his priest (played by Liam Cunningham ) and discusses the morality of the hunger strike he is about to embark on while feverishly smoking most of the other man’s cigarettes. Set in a dimly lit visitor’s room, it is literally the only full-length conversation that occurs in the film.
From here all the harsh brutality is left behind and we spend the next 30-odd minutes witnessing Sands deteriorate into an almost unwatchable state. The images are startling, and at points you will wonder if the Fassbender has been replaced by an actor with a very severe eating disorder. He has not. In a dedication to his craft that can only be applauded the six-foot Fassbender dropped an astonishing five stone (to 59 kilos ) during an extreme 10-week crash diet in the middle of filming.
In a sickeningly voyeuristic way, the more the character wastes away, and the more terrifyingly disgusting things that happen to his body, the harder it is to turn away. Revulsion and amazement melt into one. You will be disgusted, but you will watch. You will feel sick, but you will watch.
And you will never experience hunger the same way again.