Already a veteran Irish Republican Army volunteer serving his second penitentiary term at age 27, Bobby Sands was leader of Republican prisoners at HM Prison Maze, a.k.a. Long Kesh, outside Belfast in 1981. Early that year he commenced a hunger strike joined by numerous other inmates, an action intended to define IRA incarcerates as political rather than criminal prisoners while boosting international attention for the independence cause.
After 66 days, he was the first of 10 participants to die. The strike's cessation five months later (participants joined in at staggered intervals) was claimed as a victory by Conservative P.M. Margaret Thatcher and the mainstream British press. Yet the inmates won most of their demands, IRA membership surged, and the "Iron Lady" was thereafter target No. 1 for patriotic loathing among Irish free-staters.
Hunger is the first feature by Steve McQueen, the London photographer, sculptor, and maker of often black and white shorts created primarily for the more rarefied atmosphere of museums and galleries. Their minimalist rigor is very much present here in the exactitude of composition as well as their emphasis on physical detail and visceral experience. It took Julian Schnabel until The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) to find a full-length subject that suited his tactile sense while excusing a lack of narrative instinct or interest; McQueen's got there on the first try. Hunger is completely realized, without compromise. It's convincingly ugly in an aesthetically beautiful way, cool to the touch, admirably near-perfect, and off-putting.
We're introduced to Sands only after several lesser figures take brief center stage: Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a guard whose work weighs heavily on him; new prisoner Davey (Brian Milligan), who refuses to wear "the uniform of a criminal," thus joining the already in-progress "blanket protest"; and older cellmate Gerry (Liam McMahon), who introduces him to the "dirty protest." That protest consisted of caking walls with smeared feces, directing urine into the corridor, and letting uneaten food rot. We finally glimpse Sands (Michael Fassbender) during visiting hours; he puts up a fierce fight as he and others are violently dragged to a forced shave-and-wash.
Hunger is clinical, politically neutral, almost purely observational interested in simply displaying rather than commenting on the sacrifices made. It's not unlike McQueen's series of postage stamps commemorating British soldiers killed in Iraq created as part of his role as "official war artist" that were opposed by the Royal Mail and Ministry of Defense.
Ethical debate is limited to one, 17-and-a-half minute shot in which Bobby and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) lay out personal, political, and religious arguments for and against a potentially lethal strike. It's only in the subsequent, equally stock-still sequence a guard sweeping an entire hall-length of piss that the director's severity risks feeling schematic.
Needless to say, the final act is unrelenting, with its hallucinations, open sores, and actors starved under medical supervision to scarifying effect. But McQueen finds unsentimental poetry in surprising places throughout, from the snowflakes falling on Lohan's beating-scarred knuckles to Sands' lifeless face as a winding sheet is drawn over it. The institutional palette, bare-bones use of sound, even the fully exposed sinewy-to-sticklike male bodies turn docudrama into a kind of exquisite art project, at once devastating and hermetically sealed.