Hunger’s ostensible protagonist is IRA member Bobby Sands (Fassbender), the brains behind a 1981 hunger strike at Northern Ireland’s Maze prison, which resulted in his death (after 66 days) and made worldwide headlines. Yet director-cowriter Steve McQueen elides Sands’s presence for much of the film’s first half, focusing instead on the isolating rigmarole of prison life through the alternating perspectives of a paranoid cell-block guard (Stuart Graham) and a freshly incarcerated convict (Milligan). When Sands finally emerges—dragged naked and screaming into a bathroom, where he’s forcibly washed and shaved—it’s as if from a chrysalis, and a shit-caked one at that.
Sands’s hunger strike is detailed in grueling fashion, the mostly static camera lingering over aspects of his increasingly wasted anatomy, just past the point of discomfort. Flesh hugs bone, eyes glaze over, open sores stain bedsheets—a literal breakdown of the body politic. McQueen’s conception is schematic, but his aural and visual aesthetics are continuously arresting, even as they edge, in Hunger’s final movement, toward cliché. As Sands sinks further into dementia, he sees himself as a teenager running through darkened woods, birds hovering ominously overhead. It’s an interesting effect: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “child is father to the man” sentiment clashes provocatively with John Donne’s “death be not proud” corporeality, though McQueen seems too enamored of his shorthand art-house symbolism for it to truly resonate.
More haunting is Hunger’s justly celebrated centerpiece: a 20-minute-plus dialogue, prestrike, in which Sands defiantly lays bare his beliefs and motivations to a jaded priest (Cunningham). Captured in two extended takes with occasional, punctuating inserts, it’s probably the greatest one-act play ever filmed.