Nothing can prepare you for Hunger. Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s directorial debut is quite simply the most powerful British film I’ve ever seen. Dealing with one of the most troubling events of the Northern Irish conflict, Bobby Sands’ 1981 prison hunger strike that eventually resulted in his death, this was always going to be a harrowing film.
Steve McQueen’s developed sense of aesthetic allows him to create a number of images of real beauty that stand out amongst all the brutality, the graphic depictions of starvation and the attacks on prisoners by riot police. One such scene involves a prison officer walking outside to have a cigarette in the snow. The image is hauntingly beautiful and arrests the senses. The suffocating feeling the film manages to convey so effectively is for a moment relieved. This calming cigarette break is one of the few moments when we are shown anything outside the walls of the prison and intersperses two chilling beatings of IRA prisoners at the hands of the Loyalist guards. The viewer’s much needed gulp of air is followed by a sickening realisation that this luxury was never afforded to those who really lived through the hell of Belfast’s infamous Maze prison.
The conditions displayed are undoubtedly hellish, and violence is almost omnipresent yet at no point is this violence ever stylised, glorified or glamourised. Never do we feel violence is an end in itself, as we do in films like Antichrist that seem to revel in violence for little more reason than creating a sense of shock amongst its audience. Hunger is a film far too mature to resort to depicting violence for violence’s sake.
McQueen attacks his subject matter with the sensibilities of an artist, not a polemicist. Hunger is a film remarkably detached from politics. When politics appear they are not engaged in a cheap argument, the only real purpose they serve is to attempt to try to understand how human beings can be made to inflict such suffering on one-another.
Politics aren’t what we remember from the film, what we remember are its human aspects. This is largely down to McQueen’s mastery in direction, and he produces in his cast some phenomenal performances. Michael Fassbender is truly incredible as Sands. The scene in which he justifies himself to a priest before beginning the hunger strike is one of the most intense ever committed to celluloid. It is all the more striking because all it comprises is one single tortuously long shot.
Hunger is an artfully crafted film thats technical aspects deserve high praise, yet, rightly, this never interferes with the telling of the story. McQueen distills a potentially explosive issue down into its human elements. This careful dissection of one of the darker moments of British history, and its dealing with such a sensitive topic shows a remarkable maturity that is hard to find anywhere else in cinema.
The film is an illustration of what film can achieve, and why we need British film; never could a film like this have been made anywhere else. It prompts a uncomfortable look at ourselves that would be almost impossible for an outsider. In order to understand who we are we need to be constantly engaging with ourselves and with our past, Hunger proves the most powerful tool we have to attempt this is British Film.