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Hunger follows life in the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland with an interpretation of the highly emotive events surrounding the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike, led by Bobby Sands. With an epic eye for detail, the film provides a timely exploration of what happens when body and mind are pushed to the uttermost limit. Written by
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A powerful and relevant look at recent British history
Steve McQueen, a noted young British artist, has made a powerful first film about the Irish prisoners in H-Block of Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, and the hunger strike and death of Bobby Sands in 1981. The images are searing, both horrible and beautiful (McQueen is aware from Goya that images of war can be both), and much of the film is non-verbal, but the action is broken up by a centerpiece tour-de-force debate between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) that is as intensely verbal as the rest is wordless. In Irish playwright Enda Walsh's rapid-fire dialogue quips are exchanged, then passionate declarations, in a duel that's like a killer tennis match: watching, we listen, and the camera, hitherto ceaselessly in motion, becomes still. Hunger, with its rich language, intense images, and devastating story, is surely one of the best English-language of the year, and it understandably won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for the best first film. Like the American Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen is another visual artist who has turned out to be an astonishingly good filmmaker.
Faithful to the physical details of the H-blocks and the treatment of the prisoners, the film is still honed down to essentials and includes a series of sequences so intense it may take viewers a long time to digest them. As the film opens, an officer of the prison, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), follows his normal routine. His knuckles are bloody and painful; later we learn why. His wife brings him sausage, rasher, and eggs.
Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) a young Irish republican prisoner, tall, gaunt, and Christ-like, is brought into the prison. He refuses to wear the prison uniform, so, joining the Blanket protest, he's put in with fellow "non-conforming" prisoner Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) in a cell whose walls are smeared with feces. Those of us who were around when these events happened (Steve McQueen was 12, and remembers the coverage), remember them so well we could have seen these walls. Campbell shows Gillen hot to receive "comms" (communications) from visitors and pass them to their leader Bobby Sands at Sunday mass.
When prisoners agree to wear civilian garments, they're mocked by the "clown clothes" they're handed out and riot, screaming and yelling and tearing up everything in their cells. They also periodically collect their urine and pour it under their cell doors out into the prison hallway where the guards must walk. The result is a brutal punishment by the prison in which the prisoners are taken out to the hallway and beaten naked by a gauntlet of police in riot gear. An eventual repercussion is that Raymond Lohan is shot dead while visiting his catatonic mother in a home.
A poetic flourish of the meeting between Sands and Father Moran is Sands's story of going to the country as a Belfast boy on the cross country team and going down to a woods and a stream where he is the only one who dares to put a dying foal out of its misery by drowning it. The images this tale evoke become the objective correlative of Bobby's last thoughts when he is dying in the prison hospital.
The central issue was being treated as political prisoners. From 1972, paramilitary prisoners had held some of the rights of prisoners of war. This ended in March 1976 and the republican prisoners were sent to the new Maze Prison and its "H-blocks" near Belfast. Special Category Status for prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes was abolished by the English government. Hunger doesn't focus on ideology or public policy, other than to have the voice of Margaret Thatcher, in several orotund declarations, adamantly denying the validity of the republicans' cause or status. The Sands-Moran debate is more about feelings and tactics.
Another powerful contrast comes when Sand goes on the hunger strike and is taken to the clean, quiet setting of the hospital where he is lovingly cared for and visited by a good friend and his parents, who're even allowed to sleep there during his last days. Sands' condition is dramatic, heightened by horrible sores, and a report to his parents of the rapid damage to internal organs and heart that his fast will cause.
It was McQueen's decision to eschew a screenwriter in favor of a playwright for the script, and his choice of his near-contemporary Enda Walsh, an Irishman resident in London, was a wise one. McQueen determined the structure and inspired the paring down. Walsh makes the central verbal scene sing. Its intensity is such that it has no trouble at all competing with the harsh prison scenes. It is brilliant stroke. Great theater you could say, but the film's contribution is to make the whole train of events alive and human at a time when they are acutely relevant to the post 9/11 world of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Shown at Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, included in the New York Film Festival 2008.
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