Thursday, May 14, 2009

Movie Review: Hunger (2008)

Hunger ****
Directed By:
Steve McQueen.
Written By: Steven McQueen & Edna Walsh.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands), Liam Cunningham (Father Moran), Stuart Graham (Ray Lohan), Helena Bereen (Ray's mother), Larry Cowan (Prison Guard), Dennis McCambridge (Beaten Prisoner), Liam McMahon (Gerry), Laine Megaw (Mrs. Lohan), Brian Milligan (Davey), Rory Mullen (Priest), Lalor Roddy (William).

Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a movie that is difficult to watch. For it’s opening frames to its closing ones, this is a movie that seems to be about human suffering. It deals with the “Troubles” in Ireland during the 1980s, but never really glamorizes or demonizes either the Irish or the English. Because it takes place almost exclusively within the confines of the prison, the movie really sees everyone as victims. The Irish are treated poorly by the guards, to a point where they feel they must take action into their own hands, but the prison guards are equally victims, as they have to follow the orders they are given. Everyone ends up equally dehumanized.

Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is sent to prison for his involvement with the IRA. When he arrives, the IRA prisoners are already on a “blanket” strike, which essentially means that they refuse to wear the prison uniforms assigned to them, because they are “criminals” but political prisoners. The strike has lasted for months, and doesn’t seem to be getting any results. As a result, the Irish are kept segregated into cells that are encrusted with piss and shit, and are treated like animals. When the English agree to let them wear “civilian” clothes, they give them outfits that are even more degrading than the prison outfits, setting off a riot.

It is around this time that Sands decides what needs to be done is for the prisoners to go on a hunger strike. The last hunger strike didn’t last very long, and didn’t get the desired results, but Sands thinks he has figured out a way to make it work this time. In a magnificent scene, one of the best of the year, Sands calls in a sympathetic priest (Liam Cunningham) and explains to him his plan. The scene is shot in one, unbroken 18 minute shot, and represents the focal point of the entire movie. These two very different men, who have the same goal but different ways of achieving it, sit there and debate their sides. It is possible for an impartial observer to sit their and sympathize with both sides, or neither, but the movie plays fair and lets them both have their say. If this sounds boring, it is anything but – the scene is carried by two great actors at the top of their game.

After that, the movie essentially sits back and watches Sands as he goes on his hunger strike, as he slowly but surely withers away to nothing. If the opening scenes, in all their brutality, were hard to watch, then the closing ones are damn near impossible, so painfully real the sequences seem.

Co-writer/director Steve McQueen has made a remarkable debut feature. Along with his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, he has made one of the most visually arresting films of the year. He favors long shots, not just in that scene between Sands and the priest, but on multiple occasions, he simply lets his camera observe a scene in unflinching detail (another wonderful sequence is nothing more than one of the prison guards who is forced to mop up the Irish prisoners piss which they have thrown out into a long hallway). In a time where most movies have shots that last an average of 2 or 3 seconds, McQueen’s shots sometimes last minutes on end, and the result is quietly absorbing.

I’m sure there are some will complain that either the movie is too slow, or is too sympathetic to the Irish “terrorists”, who did after all kill innocent people. But I don’t think either complaint is really warranted. Sure, the movie moves at a slower pace than some Hollywood films, but it is never less than engrossing. And as for the political stance, the real villain in the movie is the uncaring, unseen Margaret Thatcher, who we hear snippets of throughout the movie. She created a system where everyone involved in the Troubles, essentially became a victim of oppression. No one in the film, or in the audience for that matter, walks away from Hunger unscathed.

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