Today there was a Time Out gala screening of Hunger which is one of the highlights of this year’s London Film Festival.
It is the debut feature film of artist Steve McQueen and explores the 1981 IRA hunger strike, one of the key episodes of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
This involved a group of IRA prisoners in the Maze led by Bobby Sands go on a protracted hunger strike in order to pressurize the British government to recognise them as political prisoners.
What is interesting is the way the film explores the hellish physical and mental toll this took on the prisoners and guards at the Maze prison.
I didn’t feel I was being lectured to about the wider politics of the Troubles, but rather being forced to confront the sharp end of the conflict as well as the lengths humans will go to in extreme situations.
There are some remarkable performances: Michael Fassbender as the stubborn and obsessive Sands, Liam Cunningham as the priest who questions the strike and Stuart Graham as a prison guard are just some of the excellent performers who don’t sound a single false note.
Although when it screened at Cannes earlier this year, there were the usual dumb headlines about a ‘controversial’ film about the IRA, but you shouldn’t be put off by the historical context.
Although the modern history of Northern Ireland has inspired some woefully misguided films (A Prayer for the Dying and The Devil’s Own spring to mind), what’s interesting is that McQueen manages to takes inside the insane brutality of the conflict by focusing on the particular situation and environment inside the Maze.
Some sequences are tough to watch: the prison guards getting rough with inmates, the prisoners smearing their walls with excrement or two people simply debating the reasons for the hunger strike, but all are handled with an incredible amount of finesse and skill.
One scene in particular is stomach turning, but somehow all the more effective for showing the depths to which some sank during this period.
It is not a partisan film, although it is fair to say that the focus is more on Sands, particularly the coda of the film which I think some have misread.
Within the confines of the prison – and some sequences outside – the chilling atmosphere of the time is brilliantly evoked through some superb widescreen lensing by Sean Bobbit.
The sound too is well crafted, with little in the way of a conventional score and a lot of effects coming from the prisoners themselves, particularly the banging from inside the cells which at certain points is overwhelming.
Despite the potential pitfalls that surround any film about The Troubles, this is an audacious work more in the tradition of Alan Clarke’s Elephant or Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday – boldly intelligent examinations of a dark and complex conflict.
I wrote about Hunger in greater detail after I saw it last month and since then I have heard McQueen express his sense of being an outsider coming into the British film industry from the art world.
On The Guardian’s Film Weekly podcast recently he told Jason Solomons:
I just wish there was more …passion with the film world here.
Maybe people are too inhibited.
Maybe because I’m an outsider who came inside and I see how the house is operating and I think ‘bloody hell’.
On the evidence of this film we need more passionate outsiders like Steve McQueen, because this is a stunning piece of work that deserves as wide an audience as possible.
Check out the trailer here:
Hunger opens in UK cinemas on October 31st
> Hunger at the LFF
> Official UK site for Hunger
> Steve McQueen at the IMDb