For my second viewing of video artist Steve McQueen's Hunger, I was prepared. I had two cats for my lap, a bowl of ice cream, some hot chocolate, and a big warm blanket... and even with all those reassuring comforts, it was still hard to take. If you want to know why, here's as good of a description as any: On an enjoyability level, Hunger is basically The Holocaust: The Irish Version.
Set in Belfast's Maze Prison—where Irish political prisoners were held—Hunger not only details the horrors inmates suffered at the hands of the guards, but also those they inflicted upon themselves as a protest of their treatment. Led by Bobby Sands (300's Michael Fassbender), Provisional Irish Republican Army detainees mounted a prolonged protest to acquire special status as political prisoners. In addition to refusing to wear uniforms (instead, prisoners wore blankets) and living in squalor (they slept alongside maggots), Sands and his followers staged a hunger strike in 1981, which resulted in Sands' death 66 days later. Nine other prisoners died after him. At the time, the strike garnered international attention, and IRA recruitment soared.
Hunger is unflinching, uncomfortable, horrific, and brutal. But it's also damned good. Using very little dialogue, McQueen's slow and achingly detailed direction makes for a deeply moving and melancholy film. McQueen's art background is evident throughout, as he studies small, quiet moments of prison life between loud, angry clashes of violence. And Fassbender is amazing as Sands, who wastes away in agony, holding onto his beliefs—the only things that define him as human in such an inhumane place.
A feel-good film it ain't—but if you can stomach watching people get beaten, shit being painted on walls, and men starving to death, Hunger is a sparse, affecting, and beautifully filmed work. It might be poor form, but trust me when I say you'll want to have some comfort food nearby when you're watching Fassbender devolve into skin and bones.