Documenting and understanding the many sides of The Troubles and the impact they had on Ireland’s culture and families is a difficult task indeed. An outsider to those days such as myself couldn’t possibly capture or understand the intricate horrors that tore friendships in half, destroyed relationships beyond repair, and took the lives of thousands. With Hunger, there is much faith to be had in both its cast and the man helming this piece. Steve McQueen is a tremendous director, one that has put social issues to film time and time again, but Hunger marks not only his feature debut, but his first attempt at capturing a pocket of relatively modern history.
Demonstrating much of the excellence and exceptional camerawork found in later projects, it’s immensely satisfying to see a director at such a good level of craftsmanship and competence from such an early time. He shows the brutal and sordid conditions criminals were contained in. Agonizingly slow cinema, not an accidental choice but a solid attempt at understanding the vile conditions, lingering often on the dimmed grey hallways and the Truly bleak and horrid, but it has to be to rally its audience up and against the government in charge of turning The Maze prison into an uninhabitable disgrace which led to the hunger strike of leading man Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender).
With such an exceptional leading man, it’s surprising to see how underutilised he is in the first act. McQueen has the unenviable task of capturing the unflinching terrorism from both sides of this loveless battle. His wordplay, when it comes through, is as exceptional as you’d expect. A chunk of the movie is devoted to an unmoving shot of Sands speaking with a Priest, and in this scene alone, we receive more backstory and character than anything we could have hoped for. Within these scenes is a sense of desperation, a loathing rage layered underneath the compassion shown to Sands by this priest, and the direction captures this tension with such a severe conviction.
Difficult to love, mainly because of how potent a message it sends, the alarming abuse that awaited so many in prison, regardless of their crimes, is tough to bear witness to. It may be easy enough to shy away from treating prisoners with any semblance of humanity without viewing films or art that portrays the reality of their conditions and lives. When prisoners are willing to give up their right to meals and water for six weeks, then it becomes rather clear that there is indeed a problem with the system, and that is what Hunger wishes to display to at least some degree. It does so well, McQueen gives it his all in a debut feature that sets him apart as a superb talent, able to tap into the core of modern issues and controversial topics.