‘Hunger’ offers devastating portrait of controversial figure

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 7:54pm

'Hunger' covers the final days of Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in a Belfast prison in 1981.

Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which opens Friday at The Belcourt Theatre, is among the most devastating, infuriating and moving films made in recent years.

It’s not for those easily offended or disturbed, because McQueen has included footage that makes the decapitations and bloody scenes in slasher films look demure by comparison.

Here’s a portrait of someone choosing to die and not in a particularly nice or noble fashion. Yet there’s no sense of exploitation here, because McQueen’s treatment makes it evident from the opening moments why it’s essential that the audience see as much as visually possible.

Hunger covers the final days of Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who starved himself to death in a Belfast prison in 1981. Sands’ case made international headlines, and to this day debate still rages over whether Sands was a noble martyr or a monster and a killer whose death transformed a vile character into a sympathetic figure.

McQueen’s film doesn’t completely answer that question, nor try to, although it does go into great detail about Sands’ personality and appeal.

You don’t even see him on screen until halfway through Hunger. Before that, McQueen spends his time presenting Belfast in the early ‘80s as well as a host of men locked up for crimes against the state. McQueen gives you little mini-films about various prisoners, showing sordid and ugly instances of men expressing their rage at their situation. He details these without an ounce of sensation or excess, presenting instead naked, virulent anger and rage coming out in things as simple as inmates firing food at guards and flooding their own quarters with filth and excrement.

Then we shift territory and begin meeting Bobby Sands, the person viewed by those in authority as the person most responsible for the carnage and brutality that’s been blamed on the Irish Republican Army.

There’s a particularly spectacular segment with Sands and a Catholic Priest (Liam Cunningham) discussing his decision to go on a hunger strike that simultaneously depicts Sands’ intelligence, desperation, and loyalty to his cause. He can’t be deterred, no matter how much the priest tries to persuade him to change his mind.

The only weakness in Hunger comes from the lack of explanatory material or expository presentation. McQueen is not interested in offering the audience a discourse on the history of the Irish Republican Army or an explanation of how Sands became a pivotal and sacrificial figure. Nor does he explore whether those confining him ever became converted to his viewpoint or even attempted to understand it.

He’s actually not all that interested in anyone’s life beyond Sands, and even there you don’t get the type of extensive background or psychological dissection that you might see in some other types of films.

But as a portrait of dedication to a cause and the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice on its behalf, Hunger is an exemplary statement. It just doesn’t offer many answers to the numerous questions that it raises.

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Steve McQueen, Edna Walsh
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Liam McMahon, Lalor Roddy, Brian Milligan, Des McAleer, Laine Megaw, Rory Mullen
Time: 96 minutes
Rating: R
Our view: A gritty, troubling and sometimes tough-to-watch portrait of a rebel leader and his shattering decision.