Hunger (2008) dir. Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam Cunningham
“Hunger” which has been coasting through festivals piling up accolades since it’s Cannes debut in 2008 finally bows theatrically in North America. Renowned film experimentalist, Steve McQueen with his feature film debut tells the true story of Bobby Sands and his group of Irish dissidents held in a Northern Irish prison in the early 80’s. Harrowing is too small a word to describe the brutality brought to screen by McQueen and his astonishing lead actor Michael Fassbender.
McQueen’s dramatization of the elaborate means of the inmates to fuck with the guards and practice their technique of aggressive protest is mesmerizing. While it can be a sickening experience to watch Davey and his cellmate smear their own faeces on their wall, or the whole cellblock dump their urine into the hallways for the guards to mop up, McQueen shoots the film with a beautiful artistic cinematic eye. Instead of the fashionably gritty handheld techniques of social realism McQueen opts for lengthy and often stunning shots of artistic beauty to contrast the brutality.
While “Hunger” is an impressive display of physical brutal, the film arguably suffers because of its realism. In the final act during Sand’s agonizing hunger strike, McQueen plays these days of terminal sickness as mind-numbingly squeamish matter of fact. After 90mins of constant beatings we desperately want some to express an emotion towards Sands. No one ever does, not even his parents ask him to stop. Not even the doctors ask to stop.
There are also some glaring stylistic inconsistencies. The first half of the film is completely different from the first. We are introduced to a depressed prison guard Ray (Stuart Graham) who day after day beats and pummels the prisoners in an effort to maintain authority and discipline. We see his unhappy wife frown as Ray checks under his car every morning for IRA explosives. He is given much screen time, but leaves the story quickly with cause, but without the effect. There’s also Davey (Brian Milligan) a newbie prisoner who becomes our point of view into prison. We watch him slowly and carefully undress and enter the Belfast hellhole. He is framed as the protagonist early on, but literally disappears from the film unceremoniously at the midpoint.
The second half is Sand’s personal revolt, his hunger strike. One head-scratcher of a shot is a static long take of Sands and an IRA leader in dialogue for 10mins uninterrupted. Of course, I enjoy long takes (I wrote a lengthy article on it), but McQueen’s extends his shot so long (much of it with extraneous dialogue), it becomes a piece of cinematic aggrandizement drawing so much attention to itself the film is stopped dead.
Much talk will be about lead actor Michael Fassbender’s Christian Bale-like physical transformation. Losing weight for a role doesn’t impress me, but Fassbender offers a performance deeper than the mere physical. The aforementioned long take dialogue scene, while excessive and meandering, features a dynamic moral and political tête-à-tête with his priest. The two debate the ethics of starving oneself for one’s beliefs, and whether it’s the right way to convince the British to make concessions. The Priest calls it suicide, but Sands calls it murder. Fassbender is magnetic and utterly convincing as a stubborn but passionate man who is willing to make his own body a vessel or statement for the cause. Enjoy.