Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by:Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon
Released: November 6, 2008
Grade: A

I first saw Hunger at the Brisbane International Film Festival back in August and I’m very glad to see it getting a cinematic release across Australia.  Put simply – it blew me away.  It is one of the few films I’ve seen this year that left a real emotional impact.

The story is based around actual events.  In 1981, Bobby Sands was an inmate at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.  He was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and several years earlier, he had been convicted of possessing firearms and sentenced to 14 years in jail.  He wasn’t alone inside the prison’s walls.  It was home to a large number of other “republican prisoners” who had been found guilty of various offences.

Those in the Maze Prison felt that they should be treated as political prisoners.  They had been had been fighting for independence against the British rule of Northern Ireland.  If they were granted such status, would not have to engage in prison work, would be provided additional servings of food and would be allowed additional visits from family.  They were previously granted this political status in 1972 by the British Government but it was withdrawn in 1976.

Bobby Sands was a highly regarded member of the IRA and in March 1981, he commenced a hunger strike to help publicise their demands and the deteriorating conditions with the prison.  More than 20 of his fellow inmates would do the same and the event garnered media attention around the world.  Would the British Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, bow to their demands?

There are essentially three parts to this film.  In the first, we see the prison through the eyes of one of the guards, Ray Lohan (Graham).  It’s a very strong opening because of the fact that there is virtually no dialogue.  Director Steve McQueen did this as he wanted the audience “to know what it felt like to be in the Maze at that time – to capture what is not written about in history books”.  We do this not by listening to the characters but by watching them go about their daily routines.  It’s a very effective introduction by McQueen and it will create an eerily quiet atmosphere if you see it in a packed movie theatre.

In the second part of the movie, Bobby Sands (Fassbender) shares a conversation in the visitor’s room of the prison with a priest by the name of Dominic Moran (Cunningham).  They debate the merits of the hunger strike and the plight of the prisoners.  This is the most powerful scene in the film.  The conversation lasts for 22 minutes and of this, 17 minutes was shot in a single take (without editing).  These two protagonists try to make the other understand their point of review.  It’s riveting.

The final sequence follows the hunger strike itself.  The actual shooting of the movie was halted for several months so that actor Michael Fassbender could lose the necessary weight.  I’ll say it’s a brave performance but he looks sickly thin in the later stages.  He lost 14 kilograms in total and his lowest weight was a mere 58kgs.  It’s tough to watch at times but I think that’s the point the filmmakers are trying to emphasise.

It’s hard to believe this is the feature film debut of English-born director Steve McQueen.  It won the prestigious Camera D’or prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival for best first feature.  It may relate to a period of history but the points it has to make on political prisoners are just as relevant in today’s times with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Hunger will generate debate… but that’s a good thing.