Last night, PJ and I watched Hunger, a 2008 movie starring Michael Fassbinder as Irish republican Bobby Sands who died in a British prison after a 66-day hunger strike in 1981. Here’s the trailer:

If I remember correctly, we put this movie on our netflix queue after seeing Fassbinder in Inglourious Basterds. PJ read about this movie and put it on our queue. Neither of us knew much about “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland or about this specific story, the revolutionaries’ hunger strike as an attempt to force Margaret Thatcher’s government to treat them as political prisoners rather than common criminals.

So, we went into this film with very little knowledge about what it is about. I think that ignorance made the film even richer for us. It allowed us to just go along with the ride, so to speak. Apparently, Steve McQueen, the director, is known for his experimental/lyrical style of storytelling. For instance, although the film is ultimately about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, that’s not where the film starts.

Instead, we meander through two other stories/points of view before we’re even introduced to Sands as a character. First, we follow one of the prison guards to work. Then we observe the acclimation of a new inmate. It’s at least 20 minutes into the film before we’re even introduced to Sands, and even then he’s a peripheral character for little while longer.

If we had known more about the story, this meandering narrative might have been a little frustrating. We might have just wanted to hurry up and get to Sands and the main plot. But I absolutely fell in love with this method of story telling. It ended up giving us a lot more context for the main story; we see the conditions of the prison, how the British treat the Northern Irish, and how the revolutionaries fight back in every way they can.

All of which sets up the hunger strike story, which is told in realistic detail. In fact, all of the film seems incredibly realistic and gruesomely so at times. We see Sands waste away, but we also see beatings, murders, and resistance in all of their gory detail. It’s unflinching in its determination to tell this story as straightforwardly and as honestly as possible. For that alone, I really admire this movie.

Fassbinder is excellent in his role of Sands. His physical transformation during the sequence in which his character is starving to death are amazing (he reportedly lost 33 lbs. for the role), but even more interesting is his character’s dynamism and sincere belief in his cause. A scene in which he talks through his commitment to the hunger strike with a priest is incredible, not the least because most of it takes place in a single take.

All of the other performances are also completely believable and interesting to watch. Although the film isn’t particularly interested in following the rest of their stories in as much detail, we do learn about some of their fates, which is satisfying in the sense of not leaving any loose threads.

As the film progresses towards its end, it becomes even more lyrical and less narratively based. By that point I was simply marveling at McQueen’s skills as a director. This is an amazing film from start to finish. Someday I’d like to teach a class on the literature of the Thatcher/Reagan era. This film will definitely be on the list of assigned texts if I ever get the chance to teach it!

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