Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review - Hunger

Steve McQueen's
Hunger is a film built on mesmerising images, both horrible and beautiful. In telling the story of the IRA prison protests and the 1981 hunger strikes, the director leans on a visual filmmaking language rather than dialogue – he elects to show rather than tell – and the result is one of the boldest British films of recent years. When such a dispiriting number of films produced in this country are so aesthetically flat and thematically unambitious, a film like Hunger – even when it reaches slightly beyond its grasp – feels like a rare tonic. The picture has been made by an artist with a definite directorial vision, and with the collaboration of an extraordinarily skilled and committed group of actors, and there's something special going on in almost every scene.

The first half of
Hunger immerses us into The Maze, the Northern Irish prison dedicated to holding paramilitary prisoners, giving the audience a shocking and vivid recreation of the constant battle between prisoners and guards, but McQueen keeps shifting focus early on, making us wonder who the main players in this drama will be. The film opens with prison warden Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham) soaking his battered fists in a basin of water, before checking for bombs under his car while his wife watches with trepidation behind the curtains. When he gets to work, we see exactly how he damaged his hands, and after tussling violently with the prisoners, McQueen cuts to Lohan outside the prison, sucking fretfully on a cigarette while flakes of snow melt on his bloody knuckles. That's one of the remarkable moments of visual poetry McQueen and his excellent cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find in Hunger. McQueen is making his directorial debut with this film, and his virtuosity behind the camera is stunning. He follows the action with extended, often wordless takes that draw the viewer into the picture. The film is superbly edited by Joe Walker as well, who often allows scenes to run on longer than you'd expect while always finding the perfect moment to cut, preventing Hunger from falling into self-indulgence.

These attributes are all in evidence when McQueen introduces us to Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a new prisoner arriving at The Maze for a 6-year stretch. In line with the IRA policy, Gillen refuses to wear the prison uniform, and after being stripped of his clothes, he is led through the corridors with a blanket to hide his nakedness. When he arrives at his cell, he discovers a small room in which the walls have been covered with excrement, and he finds a fellow inmate similarly naked and crouched under a blanket. Since the late 1970's, IRA prisoners had been engaged in a series of protests aimed at highlighting their cause and forcing the British government to recognise them as political prisoners rather than terrorists. The blanket protests and dirty protests saw them refusing to wear anything but their own clothes, refusing to wash, and smearing faeces on the walls of their cells. McQueen puts us in this filthy setting and creates an atmosphere so pungent one can almost smell it, as the prisoners use the only tools they have – their bodies – to fight back against the institution holding them.

Hunger essentially takes place in three acts. The first third is as outlined above; a gripping and detailed look at the daily routine of abuse that took place in this prison, as the guards try every trick in the book to break the prisoners' spirit, and the inmates refuse to bend to their will. As the IRA's demands for political status continually fell on deaf ears, one prisoner decided to take things a step further, and that's when Act II of Hunger begins. We first see Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) as he is hauled out of his cell and held down while his hair is brutally chopped off, before being forced into a bath and then chucked back into his cell, bloody but unbowed. It was Sands who formulated the series of hunger strikes aimed at raising their profile to new levels and forcing Margaret Thatcher to acquiesce to their demands, and this decision is the driving force behind Hunger's most astonishing cinematic coup.

In a film that keeps dialogue to a minimum, it is perhaps ironic that
Hunger's signature sequence will be a single long conversation, but it's impossible to look past the brilliance of this central portion of the picture. The scene finds Sands sitting at a table across from a priest (Liam Cunningham) as he lays out his plan for the hunger strike that he will begin on March 1st 1981, with other prisoners joining in at staggered intervals. As he makes the case for this form of protest, Father Moran futilely argues against it, claiming Sands is looking for martyrdom and that this slow suicide will have no positive long-term effects, and as they bat their points of view across the table, McQueen keeps his camera rolling. The discussion unfolds in a single take, which runs for something like twenty minutes, but it is utterly captivating. These characters are laying out the key opposing arguments behind the film, but it doesn't feel didactic, it feels compelling and real, with the audience hanging on every word. It is a tour de force of filmmaking, and the performances from Fassbender and Cunningham are simply beyond praise.

"There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence". Margaret Thatcher's famous quote on the IRA prisoners appears in
Hunger, but this doesn't really feel like a political film, it feels like an intensely personal film. The final section of the picture deals almost exclusively with the painfully slow death of Bobby Sands, sparing us no grisly detail as Fassbender's skeletal body crumbles before our eyes. This is the only part of the film that seems to give McQueen some problems, as he starts incorporating death-related imagery that feels less imaginative and triter than that which has gone before, but it doesn't detract from the power of these scenes. It is as moving a depiction of encroaching death as I have ever seen in a film, and this is ultimately what Hunger is about. Beyond the historical context and beyond the political ramifications, McQueen's film is concerned with the human body, its ability to endure, and the tragedy of its demise.