The paradox of art how can something that we find painful and disturbing to watch also be enjoyable? Hunger is a powerful but startlingly brutal account of life in the infamous H Blocks of Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, in 1981, where IRA volunteers are campaigning to be recognised as political rather than criminal prisoners.
Their protest has seen them abandon their prison uniforms as part of a blanket strike, named after the coarse blankets they are left to wrap themselves in, and forgo bathing as part of a no-wash strike. Living in their own excrement, the prisoners, and the guards who watch over them, are in a pretty bleak existence, and visual artist turned first time film producer Steve McQueen does not hold back from showing us the true horror of the situation.
What is so impressive about this film is that it takes a part of our recent history that we would rather forget and plays it out in all its horrific truth. McQueen, who co-wrote the film with playwright Enda Walsh, directs an under-glamorised and under-emotional portrait which never names a hero. Rather than confront us with constant needless violence, he punctuates scenes of aggression with relatively wordless scenes of mundane activities in prison life, including an elongated scene lasting several minutes in which a prison guard mops bleach onto a urine stained floor with all the practised mindlessness of a road sweeper.
The viewer is given no explanations, apologies or luxuries, just as they are forced to watch the brutal beatings of prisoners, so are they forced to watch as a prison guard carefully removing his rings before washing the blood from his knuckles. Prisoners and guards alike have fallen into a casually callous routine of violence and hatred.
The film pivots around a stunningly-developed ten minute central scene, shot in one continuous take and focusing on sharp dialogue which throws the relative muteness of the surrounding scenes into contrast. Bobby Sands (a credibly clear focused and delicately tender Michael Fassbender) calls Father Dominic Moran (excellently played by Liam Cunningham) to see him and informs him that he plans to lead a targeted hunger strike.
After some light hearted conversation Moran warns Sands that he sees his actions as suicide and a desperate escape from the inhabitable conditions and brutality, but Sands argues his case and is determined that he has no choice but to martyr himself for the cause. It is raw debate, and, typically of this film, is inconclusive.
Having determined his course, the rest of the film is a dedicated depiction of Sands strike and his slow deterioration into starvation. Watched over by his parents and his son, Sands deteriorates, and after 66 days on hunger strike, dies.
There is no mystery to this film, and it feels like a slog just to get to the end. With no strong characterisation to drive some humanity into the film we are left with a stark portrait of life at its lowest ebb; life we usually prefer to keep behind walls rather than on the big screen. But while McQueens first feature film is not perfect, it is both challenging and focused. There is a strong vision being played out here and it is very effective.
While it isnt compelling rather purposefully repellent – it does feel strangely good. McQueen could do with a few films under his belt to really grow into his own style, but meanwhile Hunger is a refreshingly un-flashy look at another world that is both historically and geographically closer to us than we would care to realise.