21 March 2009

Movie Review: Hunger


2008, 96mins, R
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer (s): Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen
Cast includes: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham, Helena Bereen, Larry Cowan
Release Date: 20th March 2009

A film like Hunger is guaranteed to fuel a post viewing discussion far surpassing that of the average Hollywood effort. Where most films are wrapped in lairs of fluff and insubstantial nothingness, Hunger piles on the visceral imagery and heavy duty punches in its recount of the last six weeks of the legendary IRA member Bobby Sands. Sand’s fronted the 1981 hunger strike which attempted to gain political status for prisoners having been incriminated thanks to crimes committed in line with the Northern Irish troubles rocking the country at the same time. Shot by visual artist Steve McQueen, Hunger is a provocative and imagery laden feast for the senses and one that will not be easily forgotten by viewers of any demographic.

Set in the Northern Irish “Maze” prison now infamous for having housed the events on which the picture is based, Hunger chronicles Sands strike but also the lives of guards and fellow inmates to. The setting itself is painted in sharp yet terrifying colors allowing the downbeat stories to unfold and slot perfectly into the films bleak and yet deeply stirring heart. McQueen has opted to shoot the entire event in an almost documentary style fashion which only adds to the hefty dose of realism this confection provides, meaning that coupled with the harsh surround and impressive performances you could begin to think you’re watching archive footage.

As Sands Michael Fassbender continues to pick good projects and deliver effective performances, the actors cuts Sands as a painfully flawed yet equally sympathetic and engaging character. One sequence which goes unbroken for nearly 17 minutes between Fassbender and Liam Cunningham (playing a desperate priest) is an acting and filmmaking tour de force; both men make the setting as heated and natural as any audience could want while McQueen levels with his ambitions in forming a truly marvelous scene. This is the point in Hunger where probably 70% of the dialogue is spoken, and where we get a true feel for the man on whom this picture is based. It’s an essential and intrepid sequence necessary to fully embrace the violent yet admirably stalwart nature that marked an era in both Irish and British politics. Technically it also needs a firm round of applause. To try something like this requires a filmmaker with unfaltering understanding of his story and abilities as a director, based on this evidence McQueen has a steel lock on both.

The film doesn’t spend all it’s time by Sand’s bedside, a real deal of thought seems to have gone into building a truly depressing atmosphere and in highlighting what life was like on the other side of the prison bars. The picture really never leaves the confines of the Maze but it does spend time examining other prisoners and in particular the mental state of a prison guard wonderfully depicted by Stuart Graham, whilst in a moment of shockingly well structured direction also allows audiences a clear look at how violent the country was at this juncture in history. The film never pulls a punch; the Northern Ireland on show in McQueen’s semi-classic is the Northern Ireland that existed circa 1981.

McQueen’s background as an artist is obvious in his preference for fierce and poetic imagery over dialogue in order to build character and push the narrative forward. The cinematography and various images conjured are masterful in adding to the bleak atmosphere that has been created in the Maze setting, and even more impressive is the use of said visuals to capture the spirit of his characters. It was this aspect more than any other that really made me appreciate the picture as a whole and understand the unique talent involved. At just over 90 minutes Hunger is a fairly lean biopic but it’s crammed with visuals that should remain etched into the mind and a story that is nigh unforgettable. On the basis of this effort McQueen is talent to watch, a man clearly interested in producing a unique and powerful piece of art rather than the mind numbing schlock that tends to bung up auditoriums throughout the cinematic calendar. This is a potent film bound to leave audiences hungering for more.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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