Almost nothing I can say will do Hunger justice. For one thing, I know next to nothing about Ireland’s provisional IRA and their long struggle with the British government. For another, it’s a movie of extremes, and extremes always have to be seen to be believed. You have to see, for example, Michael Fassbender’s pale, threadbare body for yourself to believe that a film about a hunger strike can be called “gripping.” You have to watch him waste away before your very eyes to understand that other kind of hunger that drives a man to act with such desperation.
Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, a real-life figure who chose starvation where others might’ve chosen compromise. What I can’t judge, though, is the worth of his cause.
Did Bobby and his fellow prisoners deserve better? Well, of course. The prison conditions in Hunger are grim, to put it mildly. Thin blankets are all that separate the men from the icy air of their cells, which are littered with dirt, grime, excrement, and rotting or half-eaten food. But these aren’t the normal conditions of the prison; they’re the result of a blanket protest and a dirty protest.
At the heart of their complaint is their status in the eyes of the British government. As paramilitary prisoners, what they want, above all else, are the rights of a political prisoner, including the right to wear their own clothes instead of a prison uniform. They are not, they insist, common prisoners. But Margaret Thatcher will not budge. These men are not political prisoners, she insists, and they will not be treated as such.
Because I don’t fully understand the situation, I can’t say who’s right here. On the one hand, I sympathize with the prisoners, who’ve done what they’ve done for the sake of an independent Ireland. But if these men have acted violently, if they’ve taken lives to achieve political ends, doesn’t that make them, in some sense, criminals? Doesn’t Thatcher have a point when she insists that violence is violence? And is it really worth committing yourself to subhuman conditions all so you can wear your own clothes instead of a prison uniform?
What I can say about Hunger is that the directing and acting are first rate. In one scene, director Steve McQueen holds his camera on Bobby and his priest (Liam Cunningham) for a total of 17 minutes while they debate the sense of what Bobby is about to do. Rarely has simple talking been as captivating as it is here.
In another, Fassbender’s body is flung about like a rag doll as he’s forcefully shaved and given a haircut by prison guards, then tossed into a bathtub of icy water. I can’t imagine that Hunger was anything but a genuine trial for him and his co-stars. The raw physicality of the Bobby Sands role would be enough to scare away a league of actors Fassbender’s equal.
As impressive as it is, though, Hunger still strikes me as a bit…well, thin. It tells me nothing about Bobby Sands the man, only Bobby Sands the symbol. Nor do I have a sense of what his protest accomplished. These faults may have more to do with my own ignorance, though, than with the film itself, which is beautiful even as it’s hard to watch, stunning and unforgettable even as it leaves me scratching my head.