Dir:Steve McQueen. 2008. UK. 100mins
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen makes an impressive feature debut with Hunger, tackling politically sensitive material with a calm assurance and a compelling command of the medium. His portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands is a history lesson with obvious contemporary resonances in the so-called war on terror. The subject matter and often harrowing depiction of Sands physical decline could still make Hunger a tough sell commercially. British audiences may not welcome such a stark reminder of shameful acts. Critical acclaim for what will be one of the most talked about British debuts of the year should help counteract such resistance creating realistic prospects for committed specialist distributors around the globe and for further extensivefestivalexposure.
Bobby Sands (Fassbender) was one of the key figures in the IRA struggles of the 1980s. His belief in a free, united Ireland and opposition to British rule was so unwavering that he used his body and life as a last resort weapon in the fight against political oppression. His story has inspired both theatre and film projects, including Some Mother’s Son (1996).
Hunger starts by providing a vivid sense of life in H-Block of Maze Prison where republican inmates staged a ’ dirty’ protest against the British government’s refusal to recognize them as political prisoners. Cell walls are smeared with excrement, prisoners who refuse to wear a uniform have only a blanket to cover their nakedness. There is a sense too that this is a situation that has erased the humanity of prisoner and guard alike. Prison officer Raymond Lohan (Graham) checks under his car for a bomb every day before setting off to work. His split, bloodied knuckles rarely have a chance to heal.
McQueen conveys the living hell of this situation with the composure of a forensic examiner. He has the confidence to dispense with words when an image will suffice. He creates a thoroughly absorbing film that gradually narrows its focus to Sands and his protest. The central section of the film is a long, static conversation between Sands and priest Father Dominic Moran. The two men confront each other over a table. The camera never moves as the dialogue and debate hurtles between them. In many respects it is a highly theatrical, uncinematic moment, reminiscent in a way of the debate on collectivization in Ken Loach’s Land And Freedom (1995). The terse dialogue and quality of the performances mean that the attention never strays.
If Loach is the obvious name that comes to mind, McQueen also has an element of Terence Davies in the lingering intensity he brings to bear on some of his most telling compositions; a guard smoking a cigarette as snow flakes fall; another guard clearing a long prison corridor filled with urine; Sands dying agonies as he lies in bed. McQueen also has a clear affinity with actors and Fassbender’s shocking physical transformation to portray the emaciated, dying Sands is just one aspect of a performance that should help to underline his status as a rising young star.
Northern Ireland Screen
Broadcasting Commission Of Ireland
Wales Creative IP Fund
Icon Entertainment International
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