Steve McQueen’s much lauded Hunger, an interpretation of IRA member (and as is revealed at the film’s close, elected member of parliament) Bobby Sands’s 1981 hunger strike raises questions. If McQueen’s interests are political, as one might infer given the subject matter, why the focused attention on bodies and physicality, especially heightened by the film’s tragic, ghastly end, to the near negation, at points, of anything else? And if his intentions are to abstract the physicality of a particularly horrifying political protest, why an extended single-take dialogue between Bobby Sands and a local priest that slyly weaves in the wider context and questions the nature and efficacy of hunger striking, the snatches of Margaret Thatcher commentary on the soundtrack, the revelation of Sands’s political status as an elected representative?
That Hunger forces us to so openly speak about the rigor of its specific filmmaking choices is perhaps the thrust of its value as a work of art, especially in a sea of films and filmmakers that either claim to approach creaky realism via the unplanned moment or efface their creation entirely. Hunger is coolly artificial, and openly betrays its creator’s background in the art world—one could almost pull apart specific images (urine flooding from underneath the cell doors of Maze prison steadily joining into a single stream, the repeated superimpositions of birds flying through a grey sky, the constantly exposed flesh of the inmates) and array them on monitors around the walls of a gallery to near similar effect. Yet by narrativizing this collection, McQueen forces a discussion of his own stratagems (as would splitting it into pieces), a discussion that can’t help but mirror the lengthy conversation around methods and message which anchors the film. McQueen’s radical aesthetic and structuring decisions subtly re-politicizes Hunger as a work intimately concerned with choices and consequences, the personal and political.
And earlier: Caroline McKenzie’s review of Hunger.