Director : Steve McQueen
Screenplay : Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands), Stuart Graham (Raymond Lohan), Helena Bereen (Raymond’s mother), Liam Cunningham (Father Dominic Moran), Laine Megaw (Lohan’s wife), Brian Milligan (Davey Gillen), Liam McMahon (Gerry Campbell), Karen Hassan (Gerry’s girlfriend), Frank McCusker (The governer)
A film of great visceral directness and emotional power, Hunger is the feature directorial debut of Steve McQueen, a famed British artist who has, until now, focused his filmmaking on non-narrative, meta-cinematic art installations, many of which use multiple cameras and simultaneous projections in enclosed spaces. McQueen thus set for himself an intriguing challenge: How to realign his visual artistry, which was previously unencumbered by the limits of space and commercial need, and make it work within the technical and visual dictates of feature filmmaking? McQueen’s answer is to translate his use of physically enclosed spaces into a claustrophobic visual vocabulary that dominates his ’Scope frame; much of Hunger takes place within the close confines of the notorious Maze prison in Northern Ireland, and McQueen constantly increases the isolation and spatial tension with extreme close-ups, shallow focus, and a penetrating use of darkness that closes off much of the screen’s horizontal space.
The film’s subject is the 1981 Irish hunger strike, in which 10 members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) starved themselves to death in prison in protest of their treatment as common criminals, rather than prisoners of war. The hunger strike was one of the most disturbing events in the so-called “Troubles,” a period of political conflict between the British government and Northern Irish revolutionaries that started in the late 1960s. Even a quarter-century later, it is still a subject fraught with anger and tension and bitterness, thus McQueen’s visual strategies are perfectly aligned with the subject matter, which demands an approach that is resolutely physical, but also deeply humanistic. Hunger is a political film in that it is about the extremes of political conflict, but it never fully takes sides. McQueen, who cowrote the script with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, is insistent on seeing all the characters as humans, torn by their competing desires, impulses, and obligations.
The film achieves this primarily by structuring the narrative development along the paths of several different characters on opposing sides of the conflict, in particular Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), an IRA volunteer who led the hunger strike and, as a result, became a symbol of Irish repression, and Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a largely silent guard at the prison where Sands and other IRA members are being held. When the film begins, IRA prisoners are in the midst of a so-called “dirty strike,” in which they refuse to wash themselves and smear the walls of their cells with excrement (one of the film’s most powerfully unnerving visual motifs is the way in which they make patterns on their cell walls, one of which is a perfectly formed vortex). The prisoners’ self-imposed filthy conditions are contrasted with Raymond’s neat and tidy suburban home and his fastidious nature, which would seem to establish a heavy-headed dichotomy, but is in fact little more than a set-up to undermine our expectations about taking sides. At various points in the film Raymond and other guards are involved in brutal violence against the prisoners, but McQueen shows that such activities are not always in line with their nature and that the guards live under the constant threat of violence themselves (one of the first things we see Raymond do is check under his car for a bomb before driving to work).
For all of its visual intensity and sharply etched moments of institutional violence, the centerpiece of Hunger is a 20-minute conversation between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), which McQueen elected to shoot in intense long takes with a motionless camera. It’s a powerful sequence in which two ideologies come face to face, and it allows Sands (who is powerfully played by Fassbender) to justify his decision to start the hunger strike, something to which Father Moran is strongly opposed. It is a scene that could have easily become preachy or static, but McQueen turns it into a deeply felt and moving pivot point for the film, which allows us to understand, if not necessarily agree with, Sands’ decision, the physical ramifications of which dominate the film’s final 20 minutes. Watching him waste away is an excruciating experience, which only underscores the grueling, painful nature of his self-imposed death. Regardless of your political stance, it is impossible to deny the sheer willpower required to see such a protest through to the end, and even if McQueen allows himself to become a bit overly poetic in the final moments, Hunger remains a powerful tribute to the strength of human resolve.
|Hunger Criterion Collection DVD|
|Hunger is also available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||February 16, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Hunger is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in a new director-approved 2K high-definition transfer taken from the original two-perforation 35mm negative. I’m not going to say that the image is “gorgeous” given the film’s often brutal and disgusting nature, but, well, it is gorgeous. Colors are excellent and the high level of detail gives the imagery a richness and immediacy that draws you deep into the story. Black levels are crucial because so much of the film is bathed in darkness, and they are appropriately solid and inky, with good shadow detail throughout. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is greatly effective, used primarily to enclose us in the ambient sounds of the prison, although it gets a heavy workout during certain sequences in which the surround channels are particularly active (I’m thinking here particularly of the scene in which the guards are in riot gear and simultaneously banging on their Plexiglas shields).|
|Criterion’s DVD of Hunger includes new video interviews with director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender; a 13-minute featurette on the making of the film that includes additional interviews with McQueen and Fassbender, as well as actors Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, and Brian Milligan, co-writer Enda Walsh, and producer Robin Gutch; the original theatrical trailer; and “The Provo’s Last Card?,” a 45-minute episode of the BBC program Panorama from 1981 that was produced in the immediate wake of the prison hunger strikes. Especially for those who don’t know much about the history of the “Troubles,” this is important viewing that helps situate the film in its socio-political and historical context.|
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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