When looking at this year’s Academy Award nominees for lead actor there seems to be one element that is noticeably absent – degree of difficulty. Jeremy Renner’s loose and intuitive portrayal of Staff Sergeant William James is the exception and, if my choices were limited to the five nominees, he would get my vote. However I can’t say I was particularly impressed with the well of courage it took for George Clooney to spout Clooney-isms, Colin Firth to don Tom Ford suits while shot in the most favorable light possible, Jeff Bridges to roll out of bed and sing the blues or Morgan Freeman to personify a very benign Mandela. All are talented actors, but those roles seem pale in comparison to Michael Fassbender’s decision to play Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who started a hunger strike that ultimately proved fatal, for visual artist turned first-time director Steve McQueen in his film Hunger. Not only did the role require the physical transformation of a crash diet and a prisoner’s hair and beard, but it also took him deep into the mental conditions of a convicted terrorist in an enemy prison and the furthest reaches of human consciousness as he goes on a 66 day suicide crawl.
Most of McQueen’s film is made up of images from your worst nightmares with very little talking to interrupt them. But in the dead center of the film comes the now infamous and astounding 17 minute scene composed mostly of a single, stationary shot in which Sands goes head to head with a hard-edged Irish priest about the merits of his protest. This scene, which the actors reportedly rehearsed as many as 15 times a day, shows Fassbender’s Bobby Sands to be a lucid, eloquent, Christ-like force of personality. The two start out by sharing cigarettes and mutual respect. When Sands reveals he was once a cross country runner the priest admits with a laugh, “Explains a lot about ya Bobby. Big engine on ya.” Later in the conversation, after Sands’ son is brought up as a final attempt to get him to reconsider the strike, the mood suddenly shifts. Sands gives the man a scornful look and a dismissive line about the very priest-like tactic of using sympathy as a means of coercion. After a pause Fassbender launches into an uninterrupted monologue remembering a trip he took through Ireland where he and a group of boys from Belfast found a foal with a broken leg that Sands decides he must put out of its misery despite immediate consequences. It is a sermon to a priest that leaves the man dead silent. All he can manage is, “I don’t think I’ll see you again Bobby.” Sands immediately counters, “There’s no need Dom.” And suddenly a look of realization comes across Fassbender’s face as his words have become action and there is no turning back. It’s at once tragic and revelatory.
Even if I was only given this scene to judge from Fassbender would still get my vote. But there is also a scene in which a visibly battered Sands meets his parents’ frightened concern with a simple line of forced sincerity, “I’m grand, Ma.” Another finds a peaceful Sands sitting alone in his cell, smoking a cigarette rolled with Bible papers while reading a miniature, smuggled note that he then burns in a small fire at his feet. Later, we watch as the prisoners are insulted with ridiculous outfits to meet their demand of civilian clothes instead of prison uniforms and Bobby’s mental process between receipt, the tapping of his bare feet on the cell floor and the violent eruption which sees him destroy everything in the four square room. Both give telling glimpses into the different sides of this character without a single word. It is the kind of acting that can’t be taught. It comes from hard work. There is nothing easy or glamorous about it, and hopefully it signals the beginning of a very promising career that includes roles that lead him somewhere close to this masterful level.