A visceral look at a prison hunger strike

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who undertook an epic hunger strike in 1981.
Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who undertook an epic hunger strike in 1981.
Posted: April 17, 2009

There's a shot early on in Steve McQueen's Cannes-winning Hunger (yes, that's the British filmmaker's name) that doesn't seem like much at first - just a quietly observant detail. A man getting ready for his day's work is having breakfast, finishing his toast. He brushes a few crumbs from the table with his napkin.

The camera captures the crumbs in the air, in a shaft of light. It's beautiful.

And then, as we follow this man (Stuart Graham) out the door and off to his job - and as he checks the bottom of his car for a bomb - we learn that he's a prison guard. A guard in Northern Ireland's infamous Maze Prison, where the Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands undertook his epic hunger strike in 1981.

Crumbs . . . food . . . the brutally defiant refusal of sustenance. That wasn't just a poetic throwaway shot.

Hunger is daunting and powerful work. McQueen, a visual artist making his narrative feature debut (he's won Britain's esteemed Turner Prize and is representing his country at the forthcoming Venice Biennale), is less interested in the politics of "the Troubles" than he is in the power of protest, the body as a vehicle for political action, and the lengths a man will go to express himself, and sacrifice himself, for what he believes.

Sensorial in ways that become viscerally disturbing, Hunger is a film of shocking silences that tracks Sands (Michael Fassbender) and his fellow IRA prisoners through the soul-crushing regimens of prison life. First, there were the "blanket" protests, with the residents of Maze's H-Block refusing to wear prison-issued clothing, wrapping their naked bodies in blankets. Then came the "no wash" protests, the men urinating and defecating in their cells, living in their own filth.

Then came the hunger strikes.

There are long stretches without dialogue in McQueen's visually stunning wide-screen movie, which shifts its focus from other prisoners to Sands midway on. Fassbender's physical commitment to the role is scary (he outdoes even Christian Bale in The Machinist in terms of weight loss), and there is a brilliant scene in which the actor's Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) vigorously debate the hunger strike and its meaning in the eyes of God, government, and man.

In the relative calm of Northern Ireland today, it's hard to get your head around the Abu Ghraib-like conditions of the Irish prison less than 30 years ago - and the oppressive actions of the Thatcher-era United Kingdom. Terrorist or martyr, it doesn't really matter. Through McQueen's lens, what matters most is the human spirit, the human body, and what spirit and body are capable of.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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