Taken at face value, Hunger is a brutal and brilliant portrayal of the IRA hunger strikes in Northern Ireland. It is a compulsive watch, because it brings to life the depth of privation that the Maze protestors were prepared to experience in order to keep their challenge to the British government in the headlines. The dirty protests in the Maze were obsessively documented at the time by the press, but little will prepare you for the imagery that this film almost spews out of the screen.
Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Bobby Sands is extraordinary, and shows the lengths to which an actor is prepared to go to authenticate a role. One assumes that the weight loss he endured was carefully monitored by health professionals during the shooting of the film as he acted out Sands’ 66 day hunger strike, because the last scenes show an emaciated body that even the best makeup artists would struggle to simulate. Sands is portrayed as a determined but compassionate character, a leader not a follower, and as someone whose intellect was not going to be subjugated.
The acclaimed 17 minute single shot scene between Sands and a Catholic priest is very cleverly acted out, but for me the most powerful moment in the film was when Sands was being given what turned out to be his final bath. The nursing orderly changed from one who you suspect was either sympathetic to his cause or just portraying compassion to his deteriorating condition, to another with UDA tattooed on his fingers. It felt like a final abuse, harking back to the reason he has been imprisoned in the first place.
The background to Sands’ original conviction and imprisonment in 1972 at the age of 18 is that four hand guns were found in a house where he was living. He spent 3 years in Long Kesh for that offence. It followed a period of about 18 months when the Sands family had been intimidated out of their home in Rathcoole, with Bobby Sands himself being hounded out of his job by ultra loyalists. The family moved to the Twinbrook area of Belfast where Sands became a community activist. However, he was arrested again 6 months after his release following a bomb attack on the Balmoral Furniture Company at Dunmurry. In the ensuing gun battle two men were wounded. Sands was in a car near the scene with three other young men. The RUC captured them and found a revolver in the car. The four were eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The flip side of the coin of course is that unlike the director Steve McQueen, some us lived through those extremely harrowing times. More than 2,000 people lost their lives in ‘The Troubles’ at the hands of both sides, and on the mainland the IRA infamously bombed Brighton, Guildford, and Birmingham killing many innocents along the way, indiscriminately and without a shred of compassion. Only Brighton could be considered a political target, not that it justifies in any way their cause. Although their treatment in prison was excessively brutal it is likely that many of the ten men who died for their cause were violent terrorists, and Hunger’s powerful performances should not obscure that.
The last place the IRA bombed on the mainland was the centre of Manchester on Saturday 15th June 1996. We felt the quake from that bomb in our living room 6 miles away. I would absolutely recommend this film as long as the context is understood!