Inside Belfast's Maze prison in the early 80s, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) faces the brutality of the system and clashes with the Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) as he determines to keep fasting in an effort to trigger change in the classification of IRA prisoners not as criminals but as Prisoners of War.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Given better perspective 25 years or so after the events depicted, Hunger is a feast of cinema, albeit harrowing and confronting. Steve McQueen is an unconventional artist and has made an unconventional film in which we are kept permanently in our discomfort zone. Not only is the film unconventional in its approach to structuring the story, it is also idiosyncratic in the way it is shot.
For example, the central confrontation between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) is the longest single scene and the longest piece of dialogue. The exchange, shot in almost entirely one locked off two-shot with the light behind them as they sit at a prison visiting room table and smoke while they argue, represents the conflicted view of Bobby Sands' actions even within the Catholic ranks.
It also serves as a kind of editorial hinge on which the film swings, not so much judging the participants as quietly condemning them all. The episode represents the low point in the 'Troubles' that tore apart so many lives in Northern Ireland and beyond. Fassbender brings the kind of dedication to his role as Christian Bale brought to The Machinist, where extreme weight loss is a crucial feature of the performance.
The desperation of Sands and his fellow hunger strikers (who are not shown in the film) is driven by Britain's refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners. The arguments about this are complex but the film's focus is on the absence of humanity within the system and the absence of common sense within the hearts and minds of the prisoners. It should be noted, however, that McQueen does show one young prison warden hiding in tears while his colleagues brutally beat naked prisoners with batons.
He also begins the film focusing on one of the wardens, showing how he soaks his bloodied fists. He stares into the mirror just long enough for us to ask the questions that he might also be asking himself. It is in these moments, and the restrained, calculated style of observer, that McQueen, a Turner Prize winning artist making his feature film debut, proves himself to be a serious student of cinema. He also knows that to be successful, even as observer, the filmmaker must be able to pull emotional responses from his audience - and in that he excels.
Review by Louise Keller:
It is impossible to view a film such as English artist Steve McQueen's Hunger without considering both its motivation and context. Overtly political and unashamedly biased, McQueen's devastating film is shocking, disturbing and painful to watch. It is also an extremely powerful piece of cinema. If McQueen's motivation is to expose a deplorable and inhumane display of behaviour by prison guards against prisoners standing up for what they believe is their right, as they attempt to achieve political prisoner status, he is overwhelmingly successful. As an impartial look at a tumultuous time in IRA history, it fails miserably. However it is viewed, there is no denying its heinous impact in humanitarian terms, through the brutality of the violence by the guards against the prisoners and in the horrific self-imposed torture of hunger-striker Bobby Sands, passionately portrayed by Michael Fassbender.
With nothing but a couple of sentences of text to put the film into context and its 1981 timeframe, we are firstly taken into the home of Stuart Graham's prison guard Raymond Lohan before he dons his uniform. The intensity begins immediately as sound is cranked up to a surreal level: the gate squeaks, keys jangle, footsteps crunch on the gravel and the car engine roars. At the prison, violence is a way of life. There is little dialogue and we observe the routine that ensues after the IRA prisoners refuse to wear prison uniforms. They are bruised, beaten naked, forcibly washed and bashed when they smear their walls with faeces and throw their furniture against cell walls. The lengthy single framed scene in which Liam Cunningham's priest meets with Fassbender's Sands in order to dissuade him from the hunger strike is almost a respite. It's a wonderful scene beginning with small talk across a table, with cigarettes as props. It ends with an impasse. 'My life is a real life; not a theological exercise,' Sands states.
We feel nothing but distress as we watch Sands suffer and deteriorate starving himself to death in 66 appalling days. As if to compound the agony, a prison guard sweeps the urine-filled prison corridor with a brush whose scratching sounds like nails on a blackboard. These are not easy images or sounds to erase. McQueen shows courage and a great sense of filmmaking style with this controversial, hard hitting film statement. It provides much fuel for discussion, but would the discussion not have been more positive had the filmmaker shown even more courage by being less biased?
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CAST: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen
PRODUCER: Robin Gutch, Laura Hastings-Smith
DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen
SCRIPT: Steve McQueen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Sean Bobbitt
EDITOR: Joe Walker
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tom McCullagh
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 6, 2008