Shame: a captivating central performance from Michael Fassbender; a subject which deals with humanity at its most raw and vulnerable, but also at its most destructive and savage; and a directorial panache which makes the film at times feel less like a feature and more like an art installation. But it's also easy to tell that this was made earlier than McQueen's modern masterpiece - the hallmarks are there, but the director's approach occasionally alienates a little too much.
Central to Hunger is its crowning glory, a scene well over twenty minutes in length featuring only Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) talking over the hunger strike Sands intends to take as an inmate of the Maze Prison during the Troubles. Featuring a single shot around seventeen minutes long, each man on either side of a table in an empty room, this is McQueen laying his cards out on the table in bold and uncompromising fashion. The entire sequence is note perfect, the two actor glancing off each other to perfection with Fassbender in particular bringing an intensity so brazen and enigmatic its impossible to resist, and the script delivering some of the most powerful moments of the whole film.
Either side of this extraordinary middle section, things are still undoubtedly impressive but feel less successful. The opening half an hour of the film presents a patchwork of events from both inmates' and prison officers' lives at Maze, offering little in the way of narrative structure or indeed exposition. If you're not already familiar with this particular period during the Troubles, McQueen offers little to educate you, opting instead to show you his artistic vision of life in Maze Prison which regularly impresses and confounds in equal measure. Fassbender's main character isn't introduced until around a third of the way in, a bold decision which ultimately works but is likely to be at least somewhat bewildering on a first viewing.
McQueen ends his film by again opting for images rather than a traditionally structured narrative, presenting us with some of the film's most harrowing moments as we witness Sands' deterioration and decay through Fassbender's astounding physical commitment to the role. Once again, the finished product feels more like an art installation than a feature film at several points, and whilst the film here is regularly striking, there are bold decisions made by the director which don't always pay off. McQueen undoubtedly has justification for showing us an extended sequence of a prison officer dousing a corridor with cleaning fluid, then sweeping the fluid from one end of the corridor to the other, but what his reasons are just don't feel clear enough to justify such a prolonged and, frankly, uninteresting moment.
Hunger is a film to admire and appreciate artistically, but not necessarily to enjoy in the same way as McQueen's later effort Shame. The director's panache with crafting powerful images is never in any doubt, but at the same time this feels a little too esoteric and metaphorical meaning Hunger often treads a fine line of accessibility. That said, as directorial debut's go, this is one of the most powerful and promising the 21st Century has seen so far.