"You want me to argue about the morality of what I'm about to do, and whether it's really suicide or not?"
St. Patrick's Day is a time for every Irishman to get in touch with his heritage. For most of the people that live in Chicago, that means getting drunk in public while wearing green (and I vigorously question the Irishness of people who think that the Saturday closest to St. Patty's Day counts), but for me, it means watching movies about Ireland. And you know what that means... depressing shit. Whether it's anything by Neil Jordan, Ken Loach or Alan Parker, you know it's going to be some depressing shit. You can now add to the list director Steve McQueen's 2008 debut feature Hunger about Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the 1981 Hunger Strike that claimed his and nine other's lives.
The storytelling style of this film is particularly unusual and unsettling, and I'm glad I waited almost a full 24 hours after watching the film to write my review because things that bothered me at the time are now coming into focus as being strokes of brilliance. For example, the film opens with a man getting ready for his day, eating breakfast, leaving his house, culminating in his checking the undercarriage of his car for a bomb. This man is Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a guard at the Maze prison. We follow him for a bit, before bouncing over to the story of two prisoners Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) & Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) who are sharing a cell, and have taken part in the so-called "blanket" & "no-wash" protests happening among some prisoners.
To give some history (I had to look all this up, it's not really explained in the film) in the early 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher removed the status of "political prisoner" from certain men being held in prison who had committed political crimes. These prisoners are now being regarded in the same category as men who committed criminal activities, rather than ones that were politically motivated, and in protest of this, they had begun refusing to wear the prison-issued uniform, wearing nothing but blankets, and they stopped washing & even worse, had begun to pour their piss out the doors of their cells and smearing feces on the walls.
Meticulous detail is put into showing how these men tried to communicate with those on the outside & even amongst their fellow prisoners in the jail. It's painstaking, brutal and utterly realistic. It's one of the most intense movies I've ever seen. We're introduced to Sands after about twenty minutes of the film, but it's not until a scene begins at the forty-five minute mark that we get a real sense of who he is. There is a scene, smack dab in the middle of the film that is a single, sixteen minute stationary conversation between Sands and a Priest (Liam Cunningham) in which the two debate the morality of his protests. Simply put, the scene is unbelievable. There's not a direct correlation to it, but it reminded me of the centerpiece scene in The Graduate with Ben & Mrs. Robinson in the hotel arguing about whether or not what they're doing is wrong, culminating in her telling him he's not allowed to see Elaine.
In the scene, Sands tells the Priest that he is going to begin a hunger strike, and they argue about what it will actually accomplish. Sands tells an amazing story about his childhood, and Fassbender just owns it. The scene, his performance, everything about it is incredible. The film then becomes virtually wordless after this, as we follow Sands' slow journey to the grave. We see his body begin to deteriorate, and while it's hard to watch, it never feels exploitative. The thing that bothered me initially is that the film throughly shifts focus away from everyone else to just Sands at the end. It feels like the beginning of the film is now an afterthought, and we're only shown Sands' struggles.
What I've come to realize though is that the film is presenting multiple stories & multiple perspectives on the hunger strike, and it's not meant to be about any one person or thing from the event, it's about the overall experience. It works so much better in retrospect than it did at the time, and looking back on it, it makes me enjoy the film more. It is painful and difficult to watch. The brutality pulls no punches, and makes the film feel real, but it's necessary to paint a full picture of what these prisoners were fighting for. The film does a decent job of staying neutral at first, mainly by giving us an insight into the life of the prison guard, but it's very firmly on the side of the protestors. Maybe it doesn't agree with their tactics, and showing the violent deterioration of Sands' body is a clear indicator that he's doing it to himself, and almost forcing others to do it, but it's clear too that they were given no options to get their voices and demands heard.
Be warned, this is a tough film to watch, and don't even think about trying to eat something while it's on. It is incredibly powerful though, and Michael Fassbender gives one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen. If you're not already watching him, you will be after this, and he is an actor that demands your attention.