Hunger (2008, Director: Steve McQueen): I’ve been find­ing it very hard to for­mu­late my thoughts on this film, but as I said to my wife as we walked out of the screen­ing last night, I’d be very sur­prised if any­thing else I see at TIFF this year could be bet­ter. Director McQueen is a visual artist who is well known for his video install­a­tions, but this is his first fea­ture film. Hunger won the Camera d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and I expect it to win many more awards once it’s released the­at­ric­ally.

The film por­trays the events sur­round­ing a hun­ger strike that took place in 1981 in the Maze prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland. By the time the hun­ger strike had been called off after 7 months, 10 men had starved them­selves to death. The first to die was Bobby Sands, 27-year-old leader of the repub­lican pris­on­ers. Hunger begins by show­ing a few other peri­pheral char­ac­ters but about fif­teen minutes in settles on Sands (Michael Fassbender), an intense and defi­ant man who is lead­ing the jailed mem­bers of Catholic para­mil­it­ary organ­iz­a­tions like the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army in a protest to gain sep­ar­ate status as polit­ical pris­on­ers. The prob­lem is that they’re facing a British gov­ern­ment led by Margaret Thatcher, a woman for whom com­prom­ise was impossible. At the begin­ning of the film, con­di­tions in the prison are deplor­able, made even worse by the pris­on­ers’ prac­tice of dump­ing their urine into the hall­ways and smear­ing their cell walls with feces. They refuse to wear prison uni­forms and so are often naked, and they refuse to bathe or shave or have their hair cut. In these bar­baric con­di­tions, they look like anim­als and are treated like anim­als by the nakedly par­tisan (ie. Protestant and Unionist) prison sys­tem.

But far from using words for expos­i­tion, the first third of the film is remark­ably sparse in dia­logue, but intensely rich with images and, espe­cially, sounds. McQueen uses close up shots of a guard’s bloody knuckles, and we can guess how they were blood­ied. We hear the ter­ri­fy­ing beat of bat­ons on the riot squad’s shields, and we know that viol­ence is in the air. Even in the silence, we can feel the ten­sion of some­thing threat­en­ing to erupt at any moment. When Sands is intro­duced, it’s in a bru­tal scene of guards drag­ging him from his cell to be for­cibly shaved and washed. He seems unable to just sub­mit to this humi­li­ation and he’s beaten severely. The cam­era doesn’t spare us any details. We also see in close ups the way that the pris­on­ers smuggle com­mu­nic­a­tions in and out of the prison, using their bod­ies ingeni­ously to con­ceal mes­sages. But after this is dis­covered, there’s another hor­rific scene in which each pris­oner is sub­mit­ted to a pain­ful and humi­li­at­ing body cav­ity search. It’s wrench­ing stuff, and when Sands decides to start the hun­ger strike cam­paign, it’s almost as if he’s decided that it’s the only form of con­trol he has left over his own body.

The middle sec­tion of the film is a tour de force of act­ing and dir­ect­orial restraint. In one static two-shot that extends more than twenty minutes, Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham) argue over the mor­al­ity and effic­acy of using a hun­ger strike to get what the pris­on­ers want. This sec­tion felt like watch­ing a play, and the lack of facial close ups forces the audi­ence to find visual clues in mul­tiple places, in pos­ture and ges­ture and tone of voice. The inter­play between the two char­ac­ters is com­pel­ling and by the end, Sands’ determ­in­a­tion has grown.

The final third is almost com­pletely free of spoken dia­logue. Instead we watch as Sands’ body wastes away and his mind begins to inhabit a dif­fer­ent place. To watch this man do viol­ence to his own body in this way is almost even crueller than the earlier scenes, but he reaches a sort of pur­ity of pur­pose that lives in his eyes, which are blaz­ing until the very end.

Although this is a nar­rat­ive film, and based on a real story, the way in which the story is told is almost com­pletely dif­fer­ent than most other nar­rat­ive films. Imagery and sound design are as equally import­ant as dia­logue and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. This was com­pletely absorb­ing and one of the most intense exper­i­ences I’ve ever had in a movie theatre. Maybe that’s why I find myself so inar­tic­u­lately fum­bling to try to describe it.

P.S. In a scene that almost derailed the whole exper­i­ence, a group of about ten women sat in the front rows and were vis­ited before the screen­ing by actor Michael Fassbender, who pro­ceeded to sign auto­graphs and have his photo taken with each of them as they clucked and screamed and giggled incess­antly. My wife and I couldn’t fig­ure out what was going on until at some point in the post-screen­ing Q&A it was men­tioned that he had also starred in 300. The irony was thick. From a slick block­buster accused by many of being a thinly-veiled fas­cist pro­pa­ganda piece pre­par­ing Americans for a war with Iran to a deeply per­sonal film that explored the value of a single life. The women were undoubtedly impressed by Fassbender’s “ripped” body in the block­buster, and I won­der how they reacted to see­ing his “torn” body in Hunger.


Here is the Q&A with dir­ector Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender from after the screen­ing:

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Duration: 15:37


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4 Responses to Hunger

  1. Tina says:

    I would like to say that I agree with most of what you have said about HUNGER. I have to take issue with your com­ments at the end about the group of women who “clucked and screamed and giggled incess­antly” and who “were undoubtedly impressed by Fassbender’s “ripped” body in the block­buster”. I was one of those women. I have fol­lowed Michael Fassbender’s career for over 2 years now well prior to his appear­ance in 300. He is a won­der­ful actor as I hope you saw in HUNGER. If I or any of those women had only cared about Michael’s ripped body in 300 there are plenty of other Hollywood act­ors we could fol­low. Yes we did get excited when he came up to us , but we like you were there to see a movie that I am going to guess we had read more about and knew more about than you did. I am curi­ous how we could have almost derailed your movie exper­i­ence by being excited to see an amaz­ing actor and then sit­ting and watch­ing a movie like every­one else in that theater.

  2. Ellen says:

    I am happy to see that you enjoyed the film as much as I did. I feel the need to com­ment because I was a mem­ber of the said group of women that were vis­ited by Michael Fassbender. My dear friend has fol­lowed his career since long before 300. I guess I should apo­lo­gize for the uncon­trolled shriek that I let out not even being his fan. He came up behind us all and no one expec­ted it. As for gig­gling I am sure that you noticed dur­ing the Q&A he is very witty. I just hope I mis­in­ter­preted your reac­tion to us for being so pleased to have met someone of admir­a­tion. I am pretty sure that if we liked him for his body that Hunger would not be a movie at the top of our must see list.

  3. James McNally says:

    Thanks, Tina. As I com­men­ted on your friend Simone’s blog:

    Mea culpa, Simone. I meant no per­sonal harm and am glad that I was able to find your forum and your dis­cus­sion of my review. From my per­spect­ive, though, I thought I was see­ing a film with an unknown actor (he was unknown to me, any­way) and had no idea that he had such a devoted group of fans.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the film as well as the exper­i­ence of meet­ing Michael, and I was pleased that your group seemed to like my review of the film. I was actu­ally hes­it­ant to add the P.S. any­way since I don’t usu­ally like to focus on any­thing but the film itself.

    I did leave out another story in which a woman two seats over from me began eat­ing a HUGE burrito just before the film star­ted. So for me the atmo­sphere was pretty ironic.

    I may also have been a bit cranky because we had been kept stand­ing in line for so long in such a con­fined and loud space. So I do apo­lo­gize if I some­how offen­ded you or other mem­bers of your group or lessened your enjoy­ment in any way.

    I think we can all agree, though, that Hunger is a major film and that Michael’s work in it is superb.

  4. Simone says:

    Thank you James for an excel­lent review of Hunger, it’s well deserving of all the praise it gets. And thank you for allow­ing us to cla­rify what occured Saturday night.

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