“Hunger” recounts the real events of the blanket strikes in Belfast. In 1981 during the conflict in Ireland a deadly battle was being waged inside the walls of Belfast’s infamous Maze prison. Republican inmates refused to bathe and wear uniforms in protest of Britain’s rejection of their plea to be recognized as political prisoners. When their strike fails, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) went on a hunger strike until the government recognized the Irish republic army as a legitimate political organization. We see the unraveling of these events from the prison guard’s perspective as well. At first, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) wearily follows his normal routine, that of an ordinary man working as a prison guard at Maze. But soon the no-wash and blanket protests (and then Sands’ hunger strike) become a living hell for both prisoner and prison officer. A battle of the wills has pitted Bobby Sands against the prison system and, ultimately of course, Margaret Thatcher.
‘In 1981 when I was growing up,’ says McQueen, ‘there was a guy called Bobby Sands. His story was part of me growing up, my coming of age. I wanted to make a situation where you smell, touch and hear the Maze prison, an environment that’s about the senses, something which hadn’t been recorded in the history books.’ This is McQueen’s first film. He previously won the prestigious Turner Prize for his art works. When Hunger was shown in May at Cannes, McQueen (doesn’t the name do so much to up the anticipation?) , a genial and bespectacled thirtysomething wearing a suit that fitted him a little too snugly dashed onto the stage for a meet-and-greet before the screening. He was all smiles. Noone except perhaps him, however, could anticipate the reaction that followed. Afterwards McQueen trotted out his cast before the audience, which rose to its feet and gave Steve McQueen and others on stage a ten minute ovation. Steve McQueen nearly owned the Cannes Festival that night.
One of the gifts of Hunger is Michael Fassbender’s mesmeric performance as Bobby Sands. Playing someone who is dying of hunger isn’t easy. Fassbender went on a medically supervised diet to lose thirty pounds. ‘I knew it had to be done,’ Fassbender was heard commenting at the premiere in Cannes, ‘I wanted to keep my focus, I didn’t want a single scene to slip and possibly tarnish the whole piece, so it was just about keeping that focus.’ Fassbender has previously appeared in Zack Snyder’s 300 and Francois Ozon’s Angel.
Hunger is seen through a kaleidoscope of diffused green and blue tones which give the prison a mildly surreal quality. Of the jail itself McQueen said, “The architecture dictated the camera,’ McQueen says. ‘There was a situation where we were going to film in H-Block in the Maze but the authorities weren’t so happy with it. So we built it in the studios, exactly as it were.’
Things move slowly in Hunger but I imagine things move slowly inside a prison, too. Sands does not insinuate himself into the story until about twenty minutes after the beginning. Time becomes altogether suspended when Sands meets with the prison chaplain Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunnigham) to reveal what he is about to do. The discussion intensifies as the priest questions Sands’ motives and morality. The resulting scene, which is the product of one continuous shot, is deeply inspiring. The two men are seated at a table and face each other. The length of the shot and the increasingly apprehensive words between the two of them are mesmerizing. Because it’s a medium shot we cannot see the interlocutors’ face very well which gives even more weight to their words.
McQueen explained, ‘we went to Belfast in 2004 where we met the people involved in the blanket protest.’ ‘The articulation of word was so precise in their conversations with us. It was almost like pushing language to the fullest to give an understanding of the surroundings and the events. On the other side is the physicality of the events, which is violence. It was a very intense introduction for us.’