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Review: Hunger by DrChocolate

Hunger Fassbender

“Hunger” is vivid and visual. It is also gut wrenching, brutal and unrelenting. It flows between scenes of stunning beauty and stunning violence. It’s quiet and pensive and vicious and visceral. It is based on the very real events surrounding imprisoned Irish Republican Army foot soldiers. First time filmmaker, and artist, Steve McQueen has crafted a real gem. But it is definitely not for everyone, or every stomach. When people say “art film,” I now tend to think the term was coined for “Hunger.” It is vividly beautiful in its harrowing depiction of the strength of the souls resolve and depths of human cruelty. It is also very easy to see how some will find the film indulgent, slow, and in danger of caving under it’s own preponderance.

“Hunger” takes place within the notorious confines of Maze Prison during The Troubles (the longest sustained period of wide spread violence between Ireland and England, generally lasting from the late 1960’s to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, thousands were killed on both sides.) The film starts in the midst of the IRA inmates Blanket Protest. (Here comes the history, if you want to skip this part be my guest. Known IRA members were held as common criminals and not as political prisoners. The difference being that a political prisoner is afforded many more rights and privileges than a criminal including the wearing of their own clothes, no prison work, more visits, etc. In protest of being seen as common criminals the incarcerated refused to wear prison clothes, going naked or with blankets wrapped around them, refused to shower and shave, etc. It escalated to where the guards refused to change out bathroom buckets, all furniture but mattresses were removed, beatings increased. In turn, the prisoners retaliated by smearing their excrement on the walls, never leaving there cells unless under considerable force, dumping their urine under the doors, and so forth. Each side unrelenting in their resolve and brutality.)

The plot, such as it is, is presented like a Christian triptych, a three-panel story with each panel loosely hinged to the next. The first panel concerns a new prisoner, Raymond, and his joining the Blanket Protest. Much of this first section is very nearly a silent film, almost reverential; McQueen lets the images alone speak loudly and effectively. Even the smearing of feces on a wall is approached as a solemn, dignified act. The reverence is only, shockingly, broken with viscous beatings followed by haircuts and hose showers and some particular invasive searches. Interspersed with the protest are glimpses of the life of one of Maze’s guards and the toll the job takes on his life. The second panel is the tour de force section of this film; it’s the power, pop, and heart of the film. (Additionally, for film geeks, it contains the longest, single sustained shot in celluloid history at over 17 minutes, a new roll of film had to be specially made for the shot.) In the scene, de facto prison leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender in a magnetic performance) and a worldly Catholic priest (Liam Cunnigham) argue the merits of a hunger strike. It is absolutely stunning. It is riveting. Fassbender and Cunningham are pitch perfect and magnetic. Really, this scene is something to behold; it is something special, I was enraptured. The outcome of the debate solidifies Sands resolve to begin staggered hunger strikes, to up the protest, he being the first to begin. The third panel returns to the silent, respectful slant of the first. Sands begins to refuse food and eventually wastes away in protest (Fassbender is again riveting and apparently lost over 40 pounds to appear starved). Watching Sands waste away into skeletal bed rest, having to be carried to the toilet and pitied by his attending physician is gut wrenching; the self-inflicted violence effectively mirroring the administered violence of the first panel. “Hunger’s” third panel nails down the films gut-punch, it is emotionally draining.

Throughout the film however, there was a quiet gnawing at the back of my head that soon began to really pound away. That pounding boils down to this: It’s obvious that McQueen respects these prisoners and their will power. But it doesn’t stop there, McQueen seems to be taking these protesting prisoners and their starving leaders down the path of beatification and on towards sanctification without acknowledging that, frankly, these men are violent at best, terrorists at worst. It is easy to romanticize the IRA and it’s struggle. The scrappy Irish freedom fighters with their lilting voices and shocks of red hair fighting tooth and nail against the big bad machine of militarized, late-millennial Britain. Their sustained, armed struggle for unification over the oppression of an occupying superpower is easy to view through shamrock-tinted glasses. I know. I’ve studied the history and at times have over simplified their case; I’ve “supported” them and respected them and, to a degree, still do. But, in truth, the IRA is a violent and often brutish entity and is guilty of quite a few shocking, and despicable, acts. The Troubles, particularly at the time this movie takes place, were such a boiling mess of tit-for-tat aggression and dirty tactics that both sides are equally to blame for the escalating horrors. There is no acknowledgment of this in the film however. McQueen, who surprisingly is a native born Englishman, and helped write the screenplay, seemingly lays all fault, mistakenly, at the feet of Thatcher’s England. He would have the unfamiliar believing that all the prisoners were falsely accused guardian angels of the Emerald Isle. His blind acquittal of these men is unnerving. (If you’re interested, here’s a pointed British review of the film that more succinctly sums up, with history!, what stuck in my craw about the pardoning manner of this film).

I must admit though that, despite my unease with the historical whitewashing, I was thoroughly moved and marginally devastated by this film. Regardless of politics and your view of Irish Republicanism and Unification if you can stomach the disturbing elements of this film it is well worth the endeavor. It is gorgeously made and visually stunning – each shot could be freeze framed and reproduced as art worthy of a prominent wall hanging. The idea of the body being the last weapon of protest is resonant. The performances, especially the star-making turn by Fassbender, are moving. Its overall impact is powerful and long lasting. It may take some patience, but consider “Hunger” highly, highly recommend.

(Stay tuned, too, this is a two part-er review of new-ish films now on DVD, that flew under the radar and into few theaters, that both deal with The Troubles. The second of this utterly dichotomous pair is “50 Dead Men Walking,” which review will come along shortly. You’re riveted, I know.)