Thursday, December 8, 2011

"I will act and I will not stand by and do nothing."

Film: Hunger
Year: 2008
Director: Steve McQueen
Written by: Enda Walsh & Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon, Frank McCusker, Rory Mullen.
Running time: 96 min.

Hunger could be seen as a political drama. You could probably imagine that by the fact that it is about the IRA and their rebellion towards British. But don't expect too much from the political side of things. The main basis of the film is the inhumane conditions that the prisoners - who weren't criminals, but rather 'political prisoners' - were put in at Maze prison. Writer and director Steve McQueen, in his debut effort, doesn't pepper his dialogue with strong political statements that force you to hate the Brits for all of their wrong-doings and to conform with the Irish by the click of his fingers. The film probably can't even be classified as a biopic of IRA volunteer Bobby Sands (played by man of the moment Michael Fassbender). Instead, McQueen presents to us is essentially three stories that don't necessarily form into a proper narrative. They all represent different things, but they all culminate in telling the story of the determination behind the prisoners and the horrible conditions they were put in. And that shows us both how hideous humans can be, and how some humans refuse to have their spirit broken.

The three stories all revolve around the people in Maze prison. The film opens with prison officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) venturing to work, checking that he isn't going to be killed by a member of the IRA. From there on, it launches into the story of two prisoners, Davey (Brian Milligan) and Gerry (Liam McMahon), who are thrown in a cell together with just a blanket on them, as they refuse to wear what they believe are 'criminals clothes'. In there, the walls are smothered with faeces (which are used as a form of art) and the living conditions are extremely poor. Also in the prison is Bobby Sands, who is taking part in the 'no wash' protest, and is severely punished by the guards because of this. Sands is arguably the centrepiece of the film, as he leads a hunger strike in the hope that the Brits will realise that they are political prisoners and that the living conditions should get better for them. While a traditional biopic would focus on it's selected person, this film only does that halfway through. Instead, the film paints a vivid picture of why a hunger strike would be done and what drove Bobby Sands to lead such a thing. That doesn't mean that Sands has to paint the picture himself.

There are two key scenes in Hunger: the first is an unbelievably shocking scene of prisoners getting beaten by the guards, and the second is the famous long take showing a discussion between Sands and the Priest (Liam Cunningham). The former is a scene that is extremely painful to watch, particularly as I still can't get over the fact that humans are capable of such cruelty. The latter is a scene which shouldn't have worked as effectively as it did. It was incredibly brave of McQueen to approach a conversation as simplistically as he did, but it made me realise something: conversations are brilliant, and when they are dressed up with several cuts between the characters and whatnot, some of the point is lost. I admit that I had to stick the subtitles on in order to completely understand the thick Irish accents (they were thick to me, I'm not sure if that was the same case for anyone else). In this scene, though, the words that are said are nothing short of inspirational, beautiful, and also morally questionable. For 16.5 minutes, McQueen asks you to actually listen to what these people are saying as opposed to watching their conversation. Then he cuts to focusing the camera squarely on Sands, who is marred by the smoke from his cigarette, as he describes his character and determination which will help him succeed in his hunger strike. His words are again passionate and determined, but you also have the Priest asking whether Sands is doing this to actually achieve something, or just to commit suicide. You can feel the passion of Sands trying to achieve something with this hunger strike, but you can't shake the feeling that maybe the Priest is right: it's slow, painful suicide, because Sands will die before he gets to see the outcome. McQueen manages to evoke so much emotion and thought from an extremely long scene that is only given two takes, which I find unbelievable.

The final 20 or so minutes show Sands enduring his hunger strike. Michael Fassbender is on top, marvellous form here. It's scary to see how emaciated the man is by the end. There's a few shots that show Sands with sores all over his body and a nurse putting cream on them. He flinches every time the nurse touches him, like her touch is an electric shock. I flinched every single time, too, feeling twangs of pain with him. Much like Adrien Brody's performance in The Pianist, Fassbender's performance here is one that I felt in my bones. Fassbender was obviously extremely committed to his role, basically laying his body down on the line. You see shots of him touching his protruding ribs, trying so hard to be able to stand upright, looking as hollow eyed as anything. Never once do you lose any of the determination that Sands has. You see the will of Sands, even though he is slowly and excruciatingly fading away. Fassbender's performance, like Sands, never gives up, as he gives it his all to become nothing. Here is a true birth of a star: someone who is not afraid to give an extremely naked, yet frightening performance. It's no wonder why Fassbender is so in demand these days.

From the direction, you can tell that Steve McQueen is an artist. That doesn't mean that the film is filled with jaunty editing (as the long takes would prove) and breath-taking visuals. Instead, McQueen shows us what appears to be a blank canvas, but is really filled with the heartache, drive and repulsiveness that these prisoners have in their lives. He uses a lot of brown to paint this picture, particularly shown in the artwork made out of faeces in Davey and Gerry's room, and also the stains on Sands' sheets. It may appear simple, but never underestimate how sick Hunger can make you feel. You also should not underestimate what a masterpiece this film is.

What I got:


  1. I wouldn't give it a perfect score, but it was damn good debut. The images just stick with you..
    Fassy is fantastic here. Even I thought of Brody in The Pianist while watching this... while that is my favourite male performance ever, this performance by Fassbender is definitely in my top 10.
    Good review.

  2. I've heard great things about this one. My favourite film about the IRA's war against the British is IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (starring Daniel Day-Lewis), but I'll reserve final judgment until I see this one.

  3. Beautifully written as always Stevee - another film to add to my ever growing 'Need to watch list'. Good 'ol Fassy!!! Let's hope for an Oscar nom for him! *fingers crossed*

  4. I loved the movie and like I said the real star of the movie for me was Steve McQueen, his directing is fascinating! Fassbender shines, as well!
    Your writing style is amazing and from what I know, sorry if I confuse you with someone else, you are pretty young, aren't you? 18? anyway, I just wanted to say I like it and I admire it! Great job!

  5. I'd give it a perfect score now I think. It is a hugely affecting film - one can compare the brutality of the beatings with the self-appointed harm that the prisoners have placed on themselves by striking. Fassbender's performance (and Liam Cunningham's in the one scene) is astounding, but I think it is McQueen who came out of this with the most attention. Lets hope Shame can feature as being just as impressive.

  6. Wonderful review!
    The movie is amazing, strong 9/10 for me. I think McQueen is the most astonishing new director, Shame has been my most anticipated for many months now. I'ms cared to even look for info how much did Fassbender weigh here - it must have been close to the line of actually risking his life, I mean in some scenes you see his veins underneath his skin :/

  7. I just saw the film. Fuck me! That was fucking intense. I'll have my review in a few days as I'm also going to look into the Criterion DVD contents.

  8. Nikhat - The images definitely do stick with you.
    Fassy will probably make it into my top 10, too (behind Brody, though). I mean, when actors put themselves down on the line like that, I am filled with nothing but respect towards them!

    Tyler - That's in my queue...I'd quite like to see it.

    Ruth - Thanks! And he better get a nomination for Shame, because he should have got one for this!

    Aziza - I guess that McQueen was the star of the show for me, too, because his direction was amazing!
    And like I said, I'm 16. Thanks!

    Andy - I'm glad that McQueen came out of this with a lot of attention, because his directing style is one that I definitely admire.
    And yes, let's hope that Shame is just as good!

    Sati - Thanks!
    I think he got down to 120 pounds from around 170/180 pounds. That is some shocking weight loss. Just shows how talented the guy is.

    Steven - It was pretty intense, eh? I must get the Criterion. And I can't wait to read your review!

  9. If you had a problem with the accent, just fancy what it was for me lol
    Great film. Great review.

  10. Haha, that must have been hard work for you! Thanks!


You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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