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If you’re not terribly familiar with recent Irish history, be sure not to miss the opening minutes of Hunger, first-time director Steve McQueen’s award-winning film about the Northern Ireland prison revolts of 1981. Even if you do catch the introduction, it can be a little confusing: The lead-in text explains that the British government has revoked the political status of paramilitary prisoners (thereby labeling them criminals) and that more than 2000 people have been killed since the Troubles began in 1969. Never heard of the Troubles? You probably know the gist, at least—the IRA, Protestants versus Catholics, lots of anger, lots of violence—so you shouldn’t let the term throw you. But considering the film that follows is as spare as the explanation, it’s difficult not to.
Hunger’s alleged focus is on the hunger strike of IRA leader Bobby Sands. Except, well, that’s not quite the case. The script, by playwright Enda Walsh, first introduces us to a guard at Belfast’s Maze prison (Stuart Graham) who checks for car bombs before leaving for work and has to soak his bloodied knuckles several times a day. Then we meet Davey (Brian Milligan), a new inmate who announces, in union with his fellow IRA prisoners, that he won’t wear the clothes of a criminal. He’s walked naked to his cell, which he shares with Gerry (Liam McMahon), who’s smeared the walls with his feces, adhering to the second half of the prisoners’ so-called blanket- and no-wash protests. All of the inmates pour their urine into the halls and get scrubbed down only by force, usually dragged and beaten along the way. They eventually agree to wear civilian clothes and are moved to clean cells; when they see the “clown clothes” provided, however—mismatched togs better suited to colorblind golfers—they revolt.
Only about halfway through the 96-minute film does the focus shift to Sands (Michael Fassbender), and even then it takes a sharp eye to recognize that this is another character. (Now is probably a good time to mention that Hunger has very little dialogue.) The script pivots on Sands’ meeting with a priest (Liam Cunningham) to whom he announces his hunger strike. The scene is a standout: McQueen locks his camera on the two men sitting opposite one another, and Walsh seizes this opportunity to show off his skilled wordplay with a fast-paced, dryly humorous, and fiercely intelligent debate between Sands and the priest as to whether the deaths that will surely result from the strike should be considered suicides or murders.
McQueen matches the rhythm and brute poetry of Walsh’s words with images. Really, you don’t need to understand the entirety of Hunger’s backstory to appreciate the filmmaking. Long, silent takes dominate, allowing the viewer to soak in the vicious atmosphere: The worst of it occurs in the third act, which focuses exclusively on Sands’ physical deterioration as he starves to death. But there are plenty of other stomach-turning if exquisitely rendered details, from a guard’s shocking murder in front of his vegetative mother to Sands’ story of how he once drowned a badly hurt foal. Even if McQueen’s direction muddles the beginning of Hunger, he’ll have wrestled your rapt attention by its end.