Brit art star Steve McQueen’s debut, centered on the 1981 IRA hunger strike, hits home like a precision-crafted action movie. In three avowedly ritualistic movements, the film stages the corporeal protests of Bobby Sands and his fellow inmates, who agitated for recognition as political prisoners. Opening on a guard, the first of several sympathetically vulnerable authority figures, part one tracks the Jesus-like detainees in beards and loincloths, who live in cells whorled with oil-paint-like human waste. Hunger bracingly mixes the visceral (mortified bodies, hard editing cuts on sound cues) and the aestheticized or art-historical (divine-golden light through a torn mesh window, the found beauty of institutional robin’s-egg blue, the incidental body art of the protests). A rhythm of relentlessness and repose might be the biggest borrowing from Alan Clarke’s 1989 IRA-hit-parade Elephant.
Set pieces of violent gauntlets and uncensored-Crusoe resourcefulness give way to a new one: a political/theological dialogue between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham). Though admired for its central 15-minute-plus shot, the gathering scene amounts to more a theatrical ethical colloquy than a real-time slow-down (playwright Enda Walsh co-wrote the highly functional screenplay with McQueen). The third act, as it were, sticks with Sands on a hospital-bed journey actually also endured by others but portrayed as martyred solitude with Diving Bell visitations.
All of which must play very differently in the U.K. than abroad, where the scant background more readily confines the film to Catholic iconography or rousing political and human-spirit heroism. Despite that oddity of an ahistorical takeaway being possible with an effort so intent on tactile specifics, Hunger engages the viewer in a productively immediate physical tension.