Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008): UK / Ireland
Reviewed by Alessa Valenzuela. Viewed at the ArcLight theater, AFI Film Festival.
Hunger (United Kingdom 2008) Steve McQueen directs a brilliant Michael Fassbender (300) as Bobby Sands, as the leader of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) who is protesting for political prisoner status by way of a no wash and hunger strike in 1981. The film begins with the introduction of a Security officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) getting ready for work. He is overly cautious as he checks under his car and around his yard for any armed assailants or bombs, once at work he seems removed from his colleagues as he avoids their joking, his hands are broken and bleeding.
We are then introduced to a new prisoner Davey (Brian Milligan) whom refuses to dress in the prison uniform he is stripped and thrown in a cell that if filled with feces on every wall and a new cell mate Gerry (Liam McMahon) introduces his new comrade to the inside of the no wash movement in the prison. The men are protesting so that they may receive political status as a part of the Irish Republican army who had been previously miss handled by officers.
The film offers little background as to the specifics behind the hunger strike but after very minimal research online I learned that the Republic or Northern Ireland were protesting the British Prime Minister for a changed status from criminal to political prisoner. The film tells the story of a second hunger strike that follows a first failed attempt. This information was not clearly represented by the filmmaker, which I think was a mistake.
We experience the ways of the prison life up close and personal with vivid contrasts and colors, the camera never follows a character but instead stays stationary in most scenes, giving us eyes into the world of disillusioned prison guards and determined prisoners. Unlike films I saw at the festival like The Chaser or Deadgirl the story is told visually as opposed dialogue. In one of the opening scenes where we see the security guard amongst his colleagues sound is absolute and though we hear the muffled clamoring of overlapping voices, the sound of officer Raymond Lohan as he is unwrapping a sandwich is the dominate sound. A sound so much smaller and seemingly less significant is heard over the louder stronger sound of the group as a whole. The idea of the small being heard over the weak carries throughout the film most obviously paralleled by the prisoners protesting.
We are not introduced to the main character Bobby Sands until well into the film, and we are only shown his power and status in the rebellion in a scene where he meets with a priest and they discuss the pros and cons of the Hunger Strike. This scene is one continued full shot side view of the two men sitting across one another, smoke billowing up from newly lit smokes and the cool dim deep green backlight filters the tension between the men. Michael Fassbender is the catalyst of the film that personifies the hope and the glory of the human spirit. As the conversation shifts to Bobby’s monologue McQueen chooses to shoot the entire story in a close up and we can’t escape the battered face of the unwavering man. This and other powerful images bombard you throughout the film, and at times it was almost too real to watch.
Cinematically the film was the most artistic and captivating of films at the festival. Steve McQueen really exercises his expertise as a visual artist and captivates us with the most beautiful and brutal images from snow falling and melting of bare battered skin, to the images of black birds flapping into the deep blue sky. Such beautiful visual story telling can be compared to that of Gladiator or 300.
The film debuted in February 2008 and has been hailed by critics across the board as one of the most shocking and important film of the year fearless and uncompromising. I can only agree that this film is a must see, because of its humanity, because of its beauty, and because of its victory.