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August 30, 2010

Hunger (2008)
Director: Steve McQueen
Actors: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Brian Milligan

hunger-300x216.jpg (300×216)

Synopsis: Irish Republican, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), leads his inmates in a hunger strike.

Review: Steve McQueen’s intent to transpose his formalist, visual artist sensibility on the cinematic medium and this recreation of the “Dirty Protest” and subsequent 1981 hunger strikes in the Maze Prison, winds up with mixed results – though, at the very least, it showcases ambition and a clear, considered attempt to find a non-dramaturgical way of recreating its piece of history.

At its weakest, Hunger‘s rhetoric is too telegraphed. By, at times, reducing his craft to the flatness of its pictorial qualities only, McQueen’s conceits become inert and too obvious: examples being the continual, portentous motif of the prison guard coming back to the cuts and sores on his knuckles (I wonder where they came from?…), and the rather rote portrayal of the fearful, callow riot police officer who winds up dementedly screaming the call to charge, and then is documented in an overly literary way, catching his sheer, panicked breath on one side of a wall while the vicious beatings of the inmates is happening on the other.

Where Hunger has much more salience is in its structural complexity, which – as mentioned earlier – more successfully refutes conventional dramaturgical tools. The perspective flits interestingly around a range of key players in the events at Maze (a guard, a newly arrived inmate, a fearful riot policeman) before settling on the major figure of Bobby Sands for the second half of the film.

As the film’s very title reveals, and as the focus on the physical degradation caused by the protests and the starvation underlines, Hunger is as much a reflection on transcendent personal pathology as it is about political determination. It is here the film is most convincing with a mesmeric sequence involving Sands and a visiting Father that fully honours McQueen’s sense of spectacle with its single take potency humanising and three-dimensionalising the otherwise overly-distanced, chess-like feel of McQueen’s rhetorical artillery. It’s the necessary heart and meat to the film’s ornateness, and is a magnificent showcase too for the acting talents of Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.

Though McQueen’s final trope of merging Sands’ death with a flashback to his childhood moment of personal-political epiphany is just possibly too sentimental, and perhaps is cheating his own artistic asceticism elsewhere in the film, it feels permissible in tapping into the sentiment of the seminal Sands/Father exchange. Though not celebrating Sands’ actions, the flight of fancy does at least symbolise the romanticism and fervid conviction that underpinned his ultimate self-sacrifice. (July 2009)

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