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Megan Clark | Where’s the Craic?

'Hunger'

Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 01:09

The 2008 film “Hunger” was a break-out movie for both its writer and director, Steve McQueen, and its lead actor, Michael Fassbender. The film portrays a series of IRA prison strikes, culminating in the 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands. This was Steve McQueen’s first feature-length film and the beginning of his partnership with Fassbender, who also starred in McQueen’s “Shame” (2011) and will have a supporting role in “12 Years a Slave” (2013).

The most salient feature of “Hunger” is the absence of dialogue. The film begins by portraying the daily routine of a prison officer in Northern Ireland. He gets dressed, he eats his breakfast and then he checks his car for bombs. At the prison, he laughs with the other guards, but the viewer only hears half of the joke — the content is not important. Finally, we see the guard standing in the snow, looking forlorn and puffing on a cigarette. Interspersed throughout this sequence are clips of the guard icing his bruised knuckles.

Next, the narrative shifts focus to a young IRA member as he arrives at the prison. During the mid ’70s and early ’80s, IRA prisoners organized the blanket and no-wash protests in an effort to be recognized as political prisoners, as opposed to common criminals. They refused prisoner uniforms, wearing blankets instead. They also refused to bathe or leave their cells, eventually smearing their own excrement on the walls. The IRA member’s narrative proceeds with limited dialogue as the viewer watches him remove his clothes, disappear and later reemerge with several bleeding wounds. He is then led to a cell. The camera pans over it, revealing it to be devoid of furniture and covered in feces. The narrative follows this character for some time. Bobby Sands, the film’s protagonist, does not appear until the 30-minute mark, when we see him beaten by the prison officer from the beginning of the film. This departure from a traditional narrative structure gives the film an observational, unemotional quality despite the harrowing subject matter.

The most enthralling conversation in the movie, its effects heightened by the film’s frequent silences, occurs between Bobby Sands and a Belfast priest, played by Liam Cunningham, a great Irish character actor. McQueen chose to film the entire 20-minute scene in one shot, an ambitious decision. In the scene, Bobby explains his intended hunger strike. A debate about the strike’s morality ensues. Ultimately, Bobby enacts his plan and the last 20 minutes of the film silently observe his decline and eventual death.

The lack of dialogue — and often complete silence — forces the viewer to interact with the narrative on a purely visual level. It also conveys neutrality. While the film features grotesque images, it does not sensationalize these images using music or explain them using dialogue. The film’s refusal to pass judgment is important. Upon its release, some news outlets condemned “Hunger,” claiming it glorified terrorists. After all, Bobby Sands and the other IRA characters were not just victims of horrific prison abuse. They were also key figures in IRA attacks that killed many people, including civilians. However, this film does not defend either the IRA or the British government. It is rather a philosophical study of commitment to a cause and the violence that people will do to others and themselves in order to support that cause.

I would recommend “Hunger” with a large caveat. It is the one of the best, most challenging movies I have ever seen, but it is also thematically and visually difficult and may be disturbing to some viewers. Nonetheless, if stark and visceral movies are something you like, “Hunger” is an amazing entry in this category.

Next week’s film: “Into the West.”

Megan Clark is a senior majoring in English and history. She can be reached at Megan.Clark@tufts.edu.

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