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Hunger (2008) ****
Bobby Sand's story has been told before on screen, but never with such raw intensity and unrelenting artistry as in Hunger. The film is directed by Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen. While his art has often been part of the film medium, this is his first entry into feature film-making.
The film sparked both controversy and applause at this years Cannes Film Festival, with both disgusted walkouts and rousing ovation. It the end it landed McQueen the Camera D'or.
While the film follows the final weeks of Bobby Sand's hunger strike, it is equally about recreating the atmosphere and conditions inside the infamous Long Kesh Maze Prison. Its nearly a half hour into the film before we even meet Sands, in fact. We're introduced to a prison guard, who outside nervously checks his car for bombs, quietly avoids his comrades, then becomes as vicious as any other when brutalizing the inmates. We're also first introduced to a new inmate, who, as per the IRA standard, refuses to war a uniform and instead goes simply wrapped in a blanket. He and his cellmate smear the walls of their cells in feces as part of the no wash protest.
Bobby is played by Michael Fassbender, who gives a quietly powerful performance. For the film he underwent a medically supervised crash diet, one rivaling - if not outright surpassing - that of Christian Bale in the Machinist. He moves throughout the film with a sense of determination and dedication.
It is difficult to go into any detail about plot, as the film more or less moves patiently and quietly towards the inevitable. And the key word may be quiet. McQueen claimed that he originally envisioned doing the film dialogue free. Indeed, much of Hunger is free of dialogue. However, McQueen, as he puts it, felt it would be more powerful to go from vocal silence into an avalanche of dialogue. And so the films centerpiece was born - a 20 minute stationary shot of Bobby speaking with his Priest. In a film that is filled with a dark heaviness in a cruel prison atmosphere, that meeting lifts a weight for a time, before slowly descending into a sad sense of inevitability. Though that inevitability is liberating, it is nonetheless a profoundly sad one. The film also does not shy away from the cruelty of the British towards the Irish, though it also does not deny the brutality of the IRA at times - as characterized in one shocking moment. However, anyone with any inkling of rational knowledge on the Irish struggles knows that the IRA was never simply a terrorist organization, but a rebel group that did from time to time employ terrorist tactics. Like all anti-state organizations, however, the IRA did not exist for the sake of conflict, but because of callousness and cruelty. McQueen reminds us of the cruelty and arrogance of the British particularly through the cold words of Margaret Thatcher, speaking shamelessly about Sands' strike.
There have been many fantastic films about the Irish Struggles, with some of the best coming in recent years (Ken Loach's fantastic Wind that Shakes the Barley, and Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday, to name two of the better). This one, I think, may be the best. At least from an artistic and purely visceral standpoint. McQueen captures his scenes in jarring compositions, with all the skill and artistic imagining of a true artist. From the opening sequences, Hunger promises something more than just the standard. Whereas most political films focus all their attention on the message, Hunger focuses on the feeling, and never strays from its artistic goals. This is art, from its opening to closing frames. It's a boldly crafted and brave film. The cinematography and direction are assured, moving slowly and unexpectedly, always beautifully even in its darkest and dirtiest moments.
I believe this truly is a great masterpiece. McQueen has proved himself as a masterful artist of film-making as well with Hunger.
The movie is a timely piece of film-making in this era of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. I have to admit my prejudice for the film because of my past as one of the prisoners depicted in the film. Long Kesh or the Maze as the British infamously renamed it was the Abu Ghraib of its day. One stark difference though: unlike Abu Ghraib, no one has ever been charged with the horror and relentless torture inflicted upon naked, defenceless prisoners in Long Kesh. The film is uncompromising in its examination of the events leading up to and beyond the Hunger Strike. Michael Fassbender is frighteningly real. But I will leave it up to the words of Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian to sum it up: 'Hunger is raw, powerful film-making and an urgent reminder of this uniquely ugly, tragic and dysfunctional period in British and Irish history '
This debut from former artist turned director Steve McQueen will leave you breathless. In its own understated way it is epic, bold, brutal and beautiful. Telling the story of the last six weeks in the life of Bobby Sands the Irish republican hunger striker the film pulls no punches in showing life inside the maze prison and what the prisoners did to try and win political status. From the outset the shots are amazing with McQueen utilising his artistic eye to bring the best out of the very cold prison environment, his attention to detail is simply stunning making every single frame fantastically watchable despite the sometimes gruesome subject matter. Also his approach of less is more adds to the atmosphere as he has shots that have no sounds or music, like the guard cleaning the corridor with its fixed camera unflinching for several minutes the only sound the eerie echoing scrubbing. Unofficially split into three the first part deals with the incarceration and subsequent no wash protests while the last deals with the hunger strikes but it's the central piece that separates which most will remember for its ability to captivate despite just being a conversation between Sands and a visiting priest. Again shot from a fixed angle and superbly lit Sands (Fassbender) explains the morality behind his decision to stop eating. The acting and the monologue will stay with you long after the films finished and cements actor Fassbender firmly in the role to the point where you start to feel for him as he begins to waste away. When the film premiered at Cannes it caused walkouts and standing ovations before walking away with the Camera d'Or for best debut and rightly so, not only is it one of the best films of the year it is one of the most powerful I've seen. Regardless of where you stand politically the message is universal and just like the circle of faeces smeared on Sands cell wall, McQueen has crafted something beautiful out of something horrible.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Believe it or not my path only crossed with this film on a rainy day
when Quantom of Solace was sold out at the multiplex. I was aware of
the historical background to the Northern Irish Troubles and the
notorious Maze prison, the last thing i was wanted to see on screen was
a glorified Republican political point scoring exercise. Many
newspapers and MPs had been jumping on the possibility of the film
being portrayed as pro IRA. I can say now with confidence that they're
assumptions could not be more wrong. Hunger, is a brutal, graphic and
pragmatic interpretation of what the last 6 weeks for Bobby Sands were
like, frankly, a desperate decision that led to a slow and painful
death, all in aid of the cause.
My two favourite parts of this film, has to be priest trying to give mass and Bobby Sands conversation with the priest and my total surprise at the dialogue between characters. I was waiting the prisoners to settle down and soak up religion, in addition when Sands stated his intention to hunger strike, i expected the priest to bombard him with sentiment and morality. What we get instead is a perfect example of how far the conflict had become removed from freverent religious belief and proliferation of beliefs, the film focuses on the sole fact that it has come a war of extermination, the exact beginnings of which have long been forgotten in the mess and carnage of Republican and Loyalist campaigns.
With the conversation with the Father Moran, i found myself identifying with his character, trying his hardest to persuade a friend from taking his life, only using morality as his last strand of defence. He states all thing unseen consequences to a immovable Bobby Sands; radicalisation of the movement, the recruitment of the loyalist paramilitaries, throwing Northern Ireland into more years of bloodshed basically Sands was lighting the touch paper because he was disillusioned with the leadership, and I have to agree with Moran's characters conclusion that it was ego driving Sands on.
I left the cinema numb, unfeeling and depressed. It was a representation of a human beings last resort for rights or recognition. I would not consider this film to be pro anything, I consider it to be a realist interpretation of the last weeks of Bobby Sands.
I saw Hunger at TIFF. I heard it was a hot ticket, and pre-festival
buzz was good so I was elated when I got tickets. McQueen uses very
little dialogue throughout the film, instead choosing to communicate
through strong visuals and raw imagery. The film is less about the
politics behind the IRA conflict, and more about the suffering of the
prisoners and the dehumanization of them at the hands of the guards. It
is not an easy film to watch. The imagery is so strong and raw that I
couldn't help but grimace during some parts. The lady sitting next to
me had her hands covering her face at one point, and was visibly
crying. McQueen holds nothing back. The prisoners are shown smearing
excrement over their cell walls and pouring their prison food over the
floor until it goes bad and are covered with bugs. McQueen demonstrates
the unwillingness of the prisoners to be stripped of their dignity (by
conforming to prison demands), despite being stripped of everything
else. There are some very long takes with no dialogue, with a
particularly long one of a prisoner cleaning himself for what seemed
like forever. The atmosphere in these scenes is so visceral that one
can almost feel the filth and smell the stench of the prisoners. There
is also one particularly brutal scene where the guards make two lines,
and each nonconforming prisoner is marched through the middle while
being repeatedly beaten by batons. Afterward, one of the officers walks
outside and weeps. It is then that we learn to see the guards as human;
perhaps even victims trapped within a conflict with no resolution in
The story of Bobby Sands takes precedent about half way into the film. The most dialogue in the films occurs during the scenes between Sands and his priest. Unfortunately the Irish accents are thick, and I found the scene hard to decipher. The final scenes in the film are tough to watch as we witness Sands' slow dissent into the throes of starvation. It is hard to imagine anyone subjecting themselves to such suffering, yet 9 other prisoners followed suit. Fassbender is very good in the role; giving us a character that is unrelenting in his choices and beliefs. He genuinely believes his suffering serves a purpose, and though some may disagree with his choices, one can't help but admire his conviction.
Hunger is an artfully done film, which is no surprise considering McQueen is a visual artist. It is visually moving and challenging piece of work. It is hard to believe that it's his first feature, and easy to understand why it won the Camera d'or, and now the Discovery award at TIFF. I would have preferred a bit more back story to the conflict (I know close to nothing of its history), but then again, choosing to put more focus on politics may have taken away from other elements of the film. Lastly, I appreciate McQueen's unwillingness to take a stand on the conflict/protest in his film. He allows the viewers to make their own judgments; he's merely here to tell the story.
Hunger is a powerful and disturbing feature-film debut for the visual
artist Steve McQueen. The film takes place almost exclusively within
the confines of a high-security prison in Northern Ireland, where many
members of the Irish Republican Army are interned. The small confines
of the prison serve as a microcosm of the wider Troubles in Ireland.
The conflict between the British wardens and the Irish inmates
escalates steadily, with each indignity and abuse inevitably leading to
The conditions revealed in the prison are deeply disturbing, with the inmates fouling the jail with effluent and the guards responding with ritual humiliation and savage beatings. McQueen's camera is an unflinching witness to the squalor and cruelty, and with the vivid imagery and forceful sounds it is almost possible to smell and feel the frightening environs of the film.
Although the focus of the film ultimately falls on Bobby Sands, the IRA member and inmate who leads a fatal hunger strike within the prison, we are not introduced to the main protagonist until a third of the way through the film. This approach works remarkably well in setting the scene for the main narrative, but it is disappointing that the different perspectives on each side are somewhat sidelined thereafter, as Sands's personal struggle takes centre stage.
The terrible squalor of the prison cells provides some of the film's most powerful images, but it is the second third of the film that is the most gripping, as Sands converses and argues with a visiting Catholic priest. An unmoving camera is trained upon these two protagonists for what must be nearly half an hour, as Sands reveals his plan for a new hunger strike and defends his methods of achieving political goals, ultimately berating what he sees as the priest's despondency and inertia. This is an utterly compelling piece of cinema.
However, at the end of this gripping conversation, the director sees fit to insert a somewhat tortured analogy as Sands recalls for the priest a defining moment of his boyhood. This is an unnecessary effort to inject conventional beauty into Sands's story, and sits awkwardly with the general tone of the film.
In the final third of the film, the hunger strike is depicted in by now characteristically brutal detail. Lead man Michael Fassbender clearly underwent a very painful regime to portray the wasting and withering of Bobby Sands in his last days. Unfortunately, amidst the impressive attention to detail, McQueen goes further in romanticising his main protagonist through a series of flashbacks to Sands's childhood. This again jars with the realistic feel of the rest of the film, and points to McQueen's obsession with Sands, which he has admitted to having had since a young age.
Although at times steering a little close to hagiography, McQueen's directorial debut is still a bold and engrossing film that cultivates an understanding for the very different people caught in up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It will be fascinating to see what his next project will be.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sydney Film Festival 2008 I was looking forward to seeing Hunger at the Sydney Film Festival as it had just recently won the Camera d'Or (best first feature) at Cannes. The subject matter also seemed interesting being about Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who starved to death in a Northern Ireland Prison in 1981 (more prisoners died after him). What I was not expecting was the aural and visual assault on the senses that this film puts the viewer through from the opening scenes. This is a brutal, unflinching and often unnerving film to watch that concentrates on the experiences of the prisoners and guards and of course in particular Bobby Sands at the prison in Northern Ireland. To give an example, when the prisoners refuse to wash they smear excrement over the walls, refuse to wear clothes and pile their rotting food in clumps around their cell as maggots crawl out. All of this is shown with unflinching clarity. The scene where Bobby is thrown out of his cell and washed by the guards is so brutally realistic that I could almost feel the punches and bruises inflicted on his body. The assault on our senses is exacerbated by long periods of little dialog at one point followed by one long scene of continuous conversation when Bobby's priest tries to explain to him that the hunger strike he intends on undertaking will be fruitless, a scene that is filmed in one continuous shot. Actor Michael Fassbender gives an astonishing performance as Bobby Sands, particularly the scenes of him wasting away during the hunger strike. While I certainly could not say I enjoyed the film it is certainly an engrossing film and one that is not easy to forget!
The H block in Belfast's Maze Prison.
This film captures the development and escalation of protest by the 'political' prisoners held here as things moved through 'The 'Blanket protest' onto 'The Dirty Protest" and finally to 'The Hunger Strikes' that claimed Bobby Sands and eight of his compatriot's lives.
As the end credits of the film show, the enemy, in the form of Margaret Thatcher was 'not for turning' and did not grant political status to these men that she considered no more than murderers. They did, however, lead to many concessions - bit by bit.
This astounding movie falls into three very clear sections; the gut wrenching blanket and dirty protest; a long and deeply personal conversation (in one 20 minute take) between Sands and his priest where Sands is asked to justify and then walk away from the impending hunger strike; and finally Sands' ordeal itself.
Each section has a different pace and personality. Each is desperate in its own way.
This film pulls few punches. The stench of human excrement is almost palpable in the opening act and the way in which Michael Fassbender brings Sands' death to the screen is almost unbearable.
But the real triumph of the film is that it takes no political sides and makes no judgements but does not sit on the fence. How? Because it invokes the viewer to do that themselves. Sands is neither a figure to pity or to vilify. It really is quite remarkable that the artist Steve McQueen can achieve this so consistently.
And this is art with a capital A. Every scene is stunningly rendered. The pace, at times snail-like, allows you consider in real detail the situation these men found themselves in (or created however you want to look at it).
Fassbender's performance is miraculous.
McQueen though, is the star of the show. One scene in particular when the men slop out by pouring their night's urine under the doors of the corridor simultaneously is quite beautiful, as is the Hirst-like art that some of them create from their excrement (that's what makes up the poster image).
Film of the year. No contest.
Incidentally we saw it in the DCA's Cinema 2. What a cracking screen.
(As we scoffed coffee and fudge doughnuts. How's that for irony?)
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.
Before Steve McQueen came along, artists turned directors trended to be
awful at the job like Tracy Emin (but she has always been an awful
artist). But since Steve McQueen there is hope that artists can be good
storytellers, with Sam Taylor-Wood also gaining critical success with
Nowhere Boy. Here Steve McQueen shows his skill with a brutal tale
about the Maze Prison and the political protests IRA prisoners
In the early 1980s terrorist prisoners in Northern Ireland had their rights as political prisoners removed and IRA prisoners protest by refusing to wear prison uniforms, thereby ending up being nude, and smearing their own feces. Prison guards have to use violence even to clean prisoners and clean their cells. One prisoner, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who suffers from the violence goes on a hunger strike to force the British government to give in to his demands. He would go on it by himself and was willing to die for his cause. To ensure that this wasn't a pointless sacrifice other IRA men would take his place other he died. As the strike continues Sands' health quickly deteriorates, with the British government standing strong against him.
McQueen shows his skills very quickly, showing the brutal nature of live and showing the dirty live of the prison cells. It is grim but effective and you get the feel of what that live was like. He also shows his ambition, with lots of wide, continuous shots throughout, the main one being when Sands speaks with a priest (Liam Cunningham) about the morality of going on hunger strike. This almost felt like a stage play. McQueen also shows his artist flair with some of the shots, but most of the time keeps the film grounded to real life.
Surprisingly McQueen shows a more balanced picture, showing a prison officer Lohan (Stuart Graham) is a human being, having to protect himself from IRA attacks, and having his wife worry for his life. But McQueen could have shown more, like terrorist attacks conducted by the IRA or British reprisals against them. I am personally a big critic of the IRA, seeing them as no more then terrorist targeting innocent civilians and now really just a criminal organisation. But despite my prejudices I was still gripped by the film, it was not Anglophobic or pro-Nationalist. An interesting parallel with today is with American treatment of Al-Qaida prisoners, where the Republicans and the Right in America want to strip them of their rights, torture them and lock them up indefinitely, whilst the Democrats want to treat them as what there really are, criminals and should have criminal trials. When it comes to fighting terrorism we need to show that we are better then sinking to their level. The film skips over the fact that Bobby Sands won an election to be an MP whilst on hunger strike.
The acting is excellent, particularly from Michael Fassbender who is quickly emerging as a massive hot prospect. He is my second choice to replace Daniel Craig, just after Matthew MacFadyen. Liam Cunningham and Stuart Graham are also worthy of note.
This is a very good film, and an excellent debut by Steve McQueen.
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