Hunger is a movie about sacrifice and political activism involving the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government. That is the movie on the surface. The film underneath is about leadership, setting an example for others to follow and standing up for what you believe in. Hunger, as the film’s title implies, is about a hunger strike orchestrated by imprisoned members of the IRA in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (a prison used to house paramilitary prisoners during the Northern Ireland Troubles) because of the British government’s refusal to reinstate their Special Category Status. Furthermore, the government will not grant them any political status and regards them as terrorists and murders. They are treated extremely harshly in prison which subsequently reinforces their causes inside and outside of the prison even more so.
The focal point of Hunger is Robert Sands (Michael Fassbender), an IRA volunteer accustomed since adolescence to doing what is perceived necessary in a given situation. There is a wonderful scene in the second act of Hunger between Robert and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) about the current situation, past Hunger strikes, Robert’s other possible motives for wanting to undertake a strike but most importantly, a defining moment in Robert’s life. The scene takes on the characteristics of a stage play during this time period as it is just the two of them in the visitor’s lounge discussing each other’s pasts. It may remind a few of the famous scene between Al Pacino and Robert Deniro in Heat. Most mainstream films would not allow a single, solitary scene go on for such an extended length of time, which is one of the benefits of an independent film like Hunger. Another moment of note in Hunger is when Robert’s parents visit him in prison and his face is bruised from a recent beating because of the no wash protest currently underway. “You’re looking well,” Robert says to his mother. “So are you son,” she sardonically replies, “so are you”.
To a lesser degree, Hunger also focuses on someone else “imprisoned” at Prison Maze as well, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a prison guard there. Most of his scenes have no dialogue and they would be diminished if they had. Lohan’s scenes speak for themselves. What he perpetrates against the prisoners is physically and emotional draining. Everyday he goes to work; he is ground down a little further and a little further by what he has done and what he will have to do.
What some viewers may find strange about the conditions the IRA have to endure in Prison Maze is that they go out of their way to make those conditions even more. Dried excrement is strewn and spackled over the walls of their cells to such a degree that the walls look as though they were haphazardly painted brown by an employee who did not give-a-damn about consistency. This and other creative measures are how, even in person, the IRA finds methods of protest against their jailers.
Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a film about extreme dedication to a cause and in the tradition of Christian zealots, martyrdom. Terrible prison conditions and countless beatings are bestowed upon the naked IRA. They, however, are in control of their lives and use that ace-in-the-hole as the final act of protest against the system that houses them and the government that rules them.