This portrait of Belfast prison life in the shadow of Thatcher’s refusal to give political status to Republican prisoners slowly shifts from the communal to the personal to become the story of Bobby Sands. After we observe several prisoners and their methods of survival, from smuggling radio equipment up their backsides to smoking the pages of the Bible, we spend the final chapter with a dying Sands, the first of ten men who died during the hunger strike of 1981 and played in an admirable performance of psychological conviction from Michael Fassbender.
‘Hunger’ glides through three clear movements – life, debate and death – each with its own mood and method of inquiry. The first section of the film deals with daily prison life and, while it’s nearly silent in terms of dialogue, it couldn’t be louder in its frank portrayal of beatings and the mechanics of the ‘dirty protest’. Later, when it comes to the depiction of Sands’s hunger strike, a final section of the film that takes place almost entirely in one room, McQueen wrenches the external from the internal, the political from the corporeal, by preceding an expressionist portrait of dying (distorted sound and vision; the flow of childhood memories; a feather floating in the air) with a 20-minute, locked-frame take of Sands in deep discussion with a priest (Liam Cunningham).
This long, intellectually meaty scene is a tour de force of acting and writing (courtesy of playwright Enda Walsh) and means that McQueen is later able to shift his focus from the ideas behind the hunger strike to the mental and physical reality of seeing it through.
This is no tale of martyrdom; no inevitable story of messiah-like protest and punishment. Neither is it a partisan tale: McQueen seeks balance in both a sympathetic prison warden (Stuart Graham), who is as far removed as is charges from the haunting voice on the soundtrack of Thatcher in Westminster, and a saddening moment when we see a riot policeman break away from his colleagues to weep behind a wall.
Imagine how most filmmakers would tell this story and then see ‘Hunger’: the differences are bold and powerful and restore faith in cinema’s ability to cover history free from the bounds of texts and personalities. It’s not an easy watch – but it’s an invigorating one. Long live McQueen.