March 18, 2010
Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): *****
British artist Steve McQueen's directorial debut Hunger focuses on one of the darkest periods in Britain's recent history. When Irish republic activists were arrested en masse and staged a brutal protest campaign to make their imprisonment as costly, exhausting and embarrassing for the British government as humanly possible. The prisoners banged on walls, screamed all day, refused to bathe or use toilets and eventually went on hunger strikes that created a martyr out of a then 27 year old Bobby Sands (played by Inglourious Basterds' Michael Fassbender).
McQueen's background as a performance and video artist is expertly translated to screen -- cocooning a series of small, contrasting political screeds within images and juxtapositions that cannot be easily erased from the viewer's mind. Hunger contains many of the trappings of the historical biopic: the young police officer who considers himself apolitical, locking himself in bathroom stall and sobbing; a young protester recounting a story of getting into trouble as a kid that provided the foundation of his political ideology; Margaret Thatcher's defiant pronouncements filling the air anytime someone turns on a radio; an older, Protestant dead-ender now a prison doctor, whose cruel acts provide contrast to the young staffers all growing weary with concern and personal doubts as the hunger strikes begin to claim lives; and, much to my personal delight, the use of Buddhist imagery to underscore death.
Similar to Kathryn Bigelow's (who was also a visual artist prior to becoming a film-maker) recent Oscar winner Hurt Locker, McQueen fills each frame with piercing visual details and applies a brutal sound design, delighting in taking each extreme human experience into an equally extreme viewing experience. There are moments that recall the similar tactics of the (fortunately) declining "torture porn" genre, but here with a positively Kubrick-ian approach to pacing. Modestly plotted scenes are made up of extremely long takes and very little dialogue while moments of extreme brutality are presented with so much detail they create a sense of slow delirium.
The 17-minute uncut take of a Catholic priest trying to talk Sands out of the hunger strike has become much discussed, mostly as a tour de force in execution. But within Hunger's structure it's difficult to imagine a better way of depicting internal disagreements for the Irish. It's striking to look at and intellectually honest but almost unbearable to watch.
But for all its brutality, Hunger is only as political a film as the viewer wants it to be. The outcome has already been written for the participants' fate, one can choose to walk away with only having seen the meticulous craft that went into things like an emotionally-gutting scenes that consists of only a fly and a snared piece of barbwire fence. One can also view it through a post-9/11 lens to be reminded that institutions have never been well-equipped to deal with a small group of ardent believers.
The looseness of these threads is the mark of a director who understands there are still complexities within the extremes of human behavior, without hesitating to show how paranoia and mob mentalities can bubble up in repellent ways under oppressive circumstances. It's an astonishing film in any respect, but as a directorial debut feels particularly brave.
DVD extras include typical Criterion luxuries: lengthy interviews with director Steve McQueen and lead actor Michael Fassbender, a making-of featurette, a 1981 news magazine piece on the Maze prison hunger strikes and a theatrical trailer.
Posted by cphillips at March 18, 2010 5:10 PM