Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger is a bold and vivid work of cinematic art. In the desolate surrounds of a prison environment that affronts humanity McQueen finds the redemptive struggles, and unrelenting spirit in the feces smeared walls of a British prison. During Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign (1981 to be precise) she denies the very concept of ‘political prisoners’ in the Northern Island conflict. IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) leads the inmates of a Northern Irish prison in a hunger strike.
1. Meet Bobby Sands and Michael Fassbender
Fassbender's introduction is infused with brutality. Nude, hair enveloping his face he's beaten, restrained and forcibly groomed. In the wake of the ordeal, a suspended inquisitive camera hovers above him. McQueen's ambivalent presence both dominates and inspects the damage. Fassbender's bewilderment pours out of the screen and projects his coping through the excruciating dehumanization to the audience. It’s an unforgettable introduction to the character and actor that put Fassbender on the map.
2. The Conversation
The composition of what effectively becomes Fassbender’s characters ‘last rights’ is incredible. Nearly silhouetted Prisoner and Priest are outlined in the sunlight shining through the windows. Bobby's cigarette smoke languidly shrouds the discussion. What feels like decades pass in the subtle and understated battle for a man's soul in the eyes of the church but also the implied theocracy (of Ireland at the time). The 12 minute sequence is shot in one single take and McQueen chooses the Spartan, yet mesmerising framing to focus the audience on the dialogue and spatial economy of how these figures intentions are positioned.
3. The sounds of cells.
McQueen's soundscape deafens with the swarm of protest or the clash of quelling revolt. Cells are flooded the vibrations and collisions of bodies against immovable concrete, and steel. The audio heightens the litany of disgusting digestive sounds of concealing and revealing the contraband stashes in all the orifices of the prisoners. It's a dizzying aural experience; until the deathly quiet of civility and suffering take over.
4. Outsider art
There’s a moment where a hazmat suit wearing prison officer, gurney in hand, enters the one of the IRA soldier’s vacant cells. The soldiers would ritualistically smear their waste over the walls to protest their lack of rights – and yet something about this cell is different. There’s the slightest hesitation to begin scouring the walls with the water as he inspects a hypnotic gyre, crafted in shit, and creating a centrepiece for the wall. The camera, like the guard is transfixed – begging reception and audience inquisition.
5. Silently slipping away
Fassbender’s immersion into Sands is grotesquely admirable. He sheds an unhealthy amount of weight to physically evoke the quiet brutality of starvation. It’s a disturbing, sickening and staggeringly committed performance amidst the passivity and serenity of impeding death.