Winner of the Camera d'Or (awarded at Cannes to the best debut film), British artist turned director Steve McQueen delivers a highly realistic account of the prison riots during "The Troubles" in England for his first film Hunger. Following IRA leader Bobby Sands, portrayed by Michael Fassbender - who would become an actor on the international stage with his role in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) and most recently in Steve McQueen's 2nd film Shame (2011) - the audience is taken into the prisons and through the agonizing experiences the Irish prisoners went through before and during the hunger strikes.
Based on a true story, Hunger manages to maintain a documentary style of neutrality as it handles the delicate topic of "The Troubles" and the hunger strike that Bobby Sands lead. The film is essentially split into four parts and has three main characters: the first being a British prison guard (Stuart Graham), the second being Davey Gillen (an Irish prisoner played by Brian Milligan), and the third being Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Beginning with the British prison guard, we get to see his daily life and the dangerous side of his job as he handles disgruntled Irish prisoners (often times he is getting injured in the process of working with them). When he helps bring in Davey Gillen, the story then becomes Davey's tale as a prisoner. When all of the prisoners are taken out of their cells for a haircut, the narrative passes to Bobby Sands at the moment that Davey sees him. The fourth and final part of the film chronicles Bobby Sands 66 days of starvation while in the British prison.
Though it is not a conventional way to tell a story, it works beautifully in Hunger for the position of main character to pass between characters based upon physical contact. Getting to experience the British perspective is eye opening and painful, but getting to experience the Irish prison life is just as bad (and far worse), so in order to glide down the line without truly taking sides director Steve McQueen had to have three protagonists who were all easy to identify with (without screaming for sympathy).
Majority of the film is without dialogue (excluding a 17 minute scene filmed from a single camera angle in which Bobby Sands reveals his hunger strike plan), and it is with that lack of dialogue that Steve McQueen is able to create a non-biased look at "The Troubles" as a whole through the physical performances of all the actors within the film.
The cinematography is stunning and invasive and Steve McQueen's artistry truly shines in this film that contains some of the most beautiful imagery of the most painful beatings and experiences. Letting the camera roll and focus upon the seemingly mundane elements of life in the prison sets an atmosphere only comparable to that of prison life.
Sound is also a highly integral element of the film (also a technical area that Steve McQueen particularly enjoys working with). Everything from stock audio of Margaret Thatcher speaking abut the troubles, to the sound of seventy prisoners all urinating into the hall outside of their prison cell simultaneously; this film is an audio frenzy grounded in the sounds of reality. Furthermore, the overall lack of a legitimate musical score fits the prison atmosphere and isolation perfectly.
Hunger, though often painful to watch, is a film-viewing experience that truly does draw comparison to documentary work (a testament to how wonderfully realistic the events of this film are depicted). Both haunting and brutal, it is unforgettable and powerful in a way that few historical films are... it lives beyond the event that it depicts.
My ranking: 5/5 stars
Hunger is available on DVD by the Criterion Collection: http://www.criterion.com/films/477-hunger?q=autocomplete