Not too long ago, I did a review for the film Michael Collins, which told the story of the early days of the IRA, with the focal point being Collins, himself. For this review, I will be returning to the subject of the IRA, but in a completely different way with Steve McQueen’s film Hunger. Take everything you have learned about biopics and throw them all out the window. This is a biopic like no other. It is a gripping experience that will leave you pondering your own moral beliefs.
The year: 1981. The place: Maze Prison in Ireland. Members of the IRA are held in this jail without being granted rights that are given to political prisoners. These rights involve the uniform policy and visitations, among other things. After a long running “no wash” protest is broken apart by the guards, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) decides to take these protests to the extreme. He proposes a hunger strike to anyone who wants to be a part of it. He is the first to protest, and we have to watch.
In terms of story, Hunger doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. It definitely does have a story to tell and it tells it well, but in a very unconventional way. The first half of the movie isn’t so much about Bobby Sands than it is about creating the atmosphere and way of life of Maze Prison. During this time, we don’t grow to hate the guards or any of the prisoners. This film doesn’t offer you the chance to take a side. Instead it purely shows what happens in the most beautiful way possible. That’s what really hit me about this movie. McQueen has taken such an ugly event and turned it into a wonderful work of art.
Seeing an actor get so deep into a role can be an unsettling thing. I think a very good example would be Christian Bale in The Machinist. I wanted to use that example so I could segue easily to Fassbender’s performance in Hunger. Like Bale, he lost an obscene amount of weight for scenes in the latter half of the movie where Sands is slowly deteriorating. He looks terrible, and McQueen feeds off this. There is nothing held back, which may be a turn off to some, but others will appreciate the realism which seems almost undramatized.
The artistic element of this movie is completely out of this world. For the first quarter of the movie, there is barely anything said. The story relies on the framing of the shots and the physical performances of the actors. Then, in what must be on of the biggest game changers in film history, there is a 17 minute long take of Sands and his priest friend engaging in brilliantly layered thematic dialogue about protests, morality, and death. McQueen proves that he isn’t afraid to take major chances in order to get his artistic vision on screen.
Like I said before, this is a biopic like no other. Calling Hunger a story about Bobby Sands wouldn’t be doing the film justice. It’s an examination at a time period in a culture that has been uprooted, changed, and fought over for many years. Being entertained by this movie is asking a lot. Hunger isn’t so much entertaining as it is an immersive experience that must be seen and felt to really appreciate it. Artistically, this film is beautiful and Fassbender gives an outstanding performance that proves he is one of the most powerful actors of our time.