"Hunger," the feature film debut of the British video artist Steve McQueen, packs a real wallop. It deals with the last months in the life of Irish Republican Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in 1981 in Belfast's Maze prison to protest the British refusal to recognize IRA members as political prisoners.
Until recently, given the vast reduction in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, this film might have seemed like a historical artifact. But the incident involving IRA dissident groups claiming responsibility for the shooting of two soldiers and a police officer gives the movie a newfound immediacy.
McQueen begins his movie by focusing not on Sands but on two other IRA prisoners (played by Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon) who refuse to wear prison-issue clothing. They smear excrement on their jail cell walls and smuggle notes written on cigarette papers. McQueen also follows the workday of a prison guard (Stuart Graham) whose morning routine includes checking his car for bombs. By the time Sands (Michael Fassbender) arrives in Maze, we are well prepared for the horrors that will follow.
Although the film, for the most part, is told from the perspective of the IRA, it does not blithely take its side. The most galvanizing sequence is a 10-minute confrontation, shot in just two camera setups, between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) who questions, with furious incisiveness, the efficacy of Sands's strike. Sands's self-generated martyrdom, the film is saying, comes at a high, perhaps intolerable, price.
To strike a note of authenticity, Fassbender starved himself, in a reversal of what Robert De Niro did to himself as a blimpy Jake La Motta at the close of "Raging Bull." McQueen takes an almost voluptuous fascination in Sands's emaciation, and I question whether this was necessary. In the end, it is not Bobby Sands but Michael Fassbender we are looking at, and this realization takes us out of the movie just as surely as (for me) De Niro's fattening up did in "Raging Bull." Filmmakers don't often give enough credit to the imaginations of their audiences. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)