Directed by Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Enda Walsh, Hunger is the true story about IRA volunteer Bobby Sands leading a hunger strike at the Maze prison. The film is an exploration into a man trying to fight for what he believes in as he leads a wave of protest against the British. Starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands along with Liam Cunningham. Hunger is a brutal yet harrowing portrayal of the 1981 Maze hunger strike from Steve McQueen.
It’s the winter of 1981 as a new IRA prisoner in Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) has entered Maze prison where he shares a dilapidated cell with Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) as they’re currently on protest without washing themselves or their cells and refuse to wear clothes. The protest goes for quite a longtime as leading the pack is Bobby Sands who continues to fight off guards and prison riot officers after getting his hair cut horribly by guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). With their protest against the British failing once again, Sands talks to Father Dominic Moran about life and such and his reasons to hold a hunger strike as he’s willing to fight to the death for the cause.
The film is essentially a look into the 1981 Maze prison protests where Bobby Sands and a group of IRA prisoners take part in a series of protests that culminates with a hunger strike that lasts seven months and would cost lives in the process. Throughout the film, there’s looks at various characters including a few prisoners, their families, and a guard all in the first act before the film properly introduces Sand. The script that Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh create is a study of what was going on at the time and what eventually drove Sands into leading a hunger strike. While there’s not a lot of dialogue present in the film, with the exception of Sands and Father Moran’s conversation, the script does study of what Sands tries to do for the IRA cause and how would lead this hunger strike.
McQueen’s direction is very unflinching in how he presents the violence and the situations these men go through as prisoners. Living in cells where it’s literally covered in human shit as they refuse to wear clothes and clean themselves up as they sport beards and long hair. They would spill whatever urine they have on bowls to mess up the prison floor just to piss off the guards. Yet, the guards would beat them up with nightsticks, fists, or anything they can find but the prisoners can take it. There is nothing safe about the way McQueen presents the violence or the conditions these prisoners lived in. There’s a lot handheld shots in these violent moments while the camera is always showing something whether it’s from afar or very close to the action.
For the non-violent moments, McQueen’s direction ranges into various styles such as an unbroken shop of a guard mopping that goes on for a few minutes till he is close to the camera. There’s also lingering shots of nature scenes to comprehend the world that Sands is thinking about as well as a few shots of suburban homes in Northern Ireland as the film sort of begins with Raymond Lohan starting his day as he checks for car bombs under his car and then getting ready to work. It’s McQueen way of emphasizing what these guards are facing as a war is still indicated by the opening shot of protesters banging metal against the pavement. Then there’s this conversation scene between Sands and Father Moran where it’s this 17-minute unbroken take that has the camera remain still from afar for this conversation. While the whole scene takes more than 20 minutes, the 17 minutes of this one continuous shot is an indication of how engaging the direction is as McQueen creates a mesmerizing yet chilling film.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does a brilliant job with the film‘s colorful cinematography from the dark yet haunting look of the shit-covered prison cells to the intense yet entrancing look of the hallways and visitor rooms that the prisoners would often see. Editor Joe Walker does an incredible job with the film’s editing in utilizing jump-cuts and other rhythmic cuts to emphasize the intensity of the violence along with more straightforward yet stylish cuts for the rest of the film in its methodical pacing. Production designer Tom McCullough and art director Brendan Rankin do brilliant work with the look of the prisons and shit-covered cells including the home of Raymond Lohan.
Costume designer Anushia Nieradzik does an excellent job with the look of the prison guards uniform as well as casual yet old-school clothes that the prisoners families wear. Makeup and hair designer Jacqueline Fowler does superb work with the look of some of the characters from the long shaggy hair to the look of the bruises they sport. Sound designer Paul Davies does a magnificent job with the sound work to capture the raucous nature of the prison including the riot guard beating scene and their chants which are truly intense to hear. The film’s music by David Holmes and Leo Abrahams is wonderful as it‘s only used sparsely in the film for a flashback scene as well as plaintive piano piece for the closing credits.
The casting by Gary Davy is terrific for the ensemble that is created for the film that includes small roles from Ben Peel as a young riot prison guard, Des McAleer and Helen Madden as Bobby’s parents, Ciaran Flynn as a young Bobby, Frank McCusker as the prison governor, Karen Hassan as Gerry’s girlfriend, Liam McMahon as the Gaelic-spouting Gerry Campbell, Stuart Graham as the tough prison guard Raymond Lohan, and Brian Milligan as the young prisoner Davey Gillen. Liam Cunningham is excellent in a wonderful supporting role as Father Dominic Moran who tries to deal with Sands’ decision for the hunger strike.
Finally, there’s Michael Fassbender in an enthralling performance as Bobby Sands. Fassbender’s performance is truly eerie in the way he allows himself to get beaten and be exposed while that conversation scene has him commanding it word for word. It’s a performance for the ages as Fassbender also brings a chilling physicality to the way he endures Sands’ hunger strike that is truly horrifying to watch in how Fassbender gets thinner with each passing moment. It’s definitely the performance that put Michael Fassbender’s name on the map.
The Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection in 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio for its widescreen format with 5.1 Surround Sound all supervised by director Steven McQueen. The film features numerous special features relating to the production of the film plus a BBC special on the Maze prison hunger strike and the film‘s theatrical trailer.
Steve McQueen’s 18-minute interview has him talking about his background as an artist and his interest towards film as he used his background as an artist and his own knowledge of the Maze prison hunger strike to make the film. McQueen knew that he didn’t want to sugarcoat what happened nor wanted to take sides into the politics of the film. McQueen discusses the famous conversation as he wanted the audience to observe every word that is happening. It is truly a compelling interview of how McQueen approached the filmmaking while wanting to go into deep with this story about one of Britain’s catastrophic events.
Michael Fassbender’s thirteen-and-a-half minute interview with film critic Jason Solomons has Fassbender talking about McQueen’s approach to directing actors as well as his own performance in the film. Fassbender revealed the diet he took to lose the weight for the film as filming was delayed for Fassbender to lose the weight. Fassbender also talks about the 17-minute one-shot conversation scene where he and Liam Cunningham spent days rehearsing that conversation to get it right.
The thirteen minute making-of documentary features interviews with McQueen and Fassbender plus co-writer Enda Walsh and actors such as Liam Cunningham about the film. The actors talk about McQueen’s approach to directing actors and his yearning to make it feel real. Notably as a lot of them are Irish and knew that McQueen wasn’t going to make some conventional film about the 1981 hunger strike. Notably as Fassbender revealed that in order to play Sands, he avoided any personal knowledge about him so he can interpret the character himself.
The 45-minute episode of the BBC program Panorama entitled “The Provos’ Last Card?” explores Maze prison hunger strike and the reaction between the people in Northern Ireland. The news report reveals more about the tension between the British and Irish as the hunger strikes has caused a lot problems for both sides. Featuring interviews with Irish leaders of the time as well as an in-depth look into the IRA’s manifesto into what it takes to become part of the group. The episode is a wonderful yet insightful piece that history buffs should see about the real life events that was happening in relation to Steve McQueen’s film.
The DVD also includes a booklet that features an essay from film critic Chris Drake about the film entitled On the Threshold. Drake discusses the film and how different it was from other films about Ireland’s war with the British such as Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday. The essay also talks about Steve McQueen’s background as an artist which allowed him to be part of a new generation of artists turned filmmakers that included Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood. Yet, Drake suggests that the film speaks more volumes for what was saying at the time in relation to what is happening in Guantanamo Bay and other political prisons as it’s a great essay to accompany a great film.
Hunger is a powerful yet uncompromising film from Steve McQueen that features an astonishing performance from Michael Fassbender. While it’s not an easy film to watch due to the visceral approach to violence as well as McQueen’s emphasis not to sugarcoat anything. It is still a film that allows the viewer to give an idea of what was going on at the time while not choosing any political sides to the hunger strike. In the end, Hunger is an extraordinary yet hypnotic film from Steve McQueen.
Steve McQueen Films: Shame - 12 Years a Slave - Widows (2018 film) - Small Axe - (Uprising (2022 film)) - (Occupied City) - (Blitz) - The Auteurs #52: Steve McQueen
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