'Hunger' (2008) 400 Word DVD Review
July 21, 2009 § Leave a comment
Score: 5 out of 5
Let me just say this, Hunger is a brilliant piece of work, and it’s certainly one that leaves an impression – and yet I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. As a debut film, directed and co-written by Steve McQueen, it’s nothing short of astonishing, but it’s also hard, brutal and unpleasant, and it captures an aspect of humanity that we’d all rather turn our heads away from than watch for a full hour and thirty minutes. So, while I did not “enjoy” Hunger, strictly speaking, it is, undeniably, a powerful and affecting cinematic experience.
Although the film does eventually come to centre on the titular 1981 Irish hunger strike led by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (here played by Michael Fassbender), its earlier focus is on the brutalisation of the prisoners at the Maze prison in Lisbon, Northern Island. Essentially, the first half of the film is about a futile, terrible struggle between wills – those of the guards and the prisoners – tearing into each other. The second half is about Sands who, out of desperation, decides on leading a hunger strike, knowing that he will likely die in the process before the prisoners’ demands for political status are met.
Hunger is an uncompromising, thought-provoking piece of work. Its direction is startlingly gritty, and possibly its greatest achievement is in forcing the audience to consider the characters solely as human beings, isolated from their political affiliations. From the very beginning McQueen shows just how adroit he is as a director in manipulating our emotions and in then, very craftily, giving us cause to question them. Further, he understands the power of imagery without dialogue. To some extent, words get in the way and cloud the essence of human cruelty; McQueen shows it how it is: bare, and in all its madness.
But, acting like an oasis in the middle of all this torture, hatred and violence, we also have a twenty-two minute dialogue scene between Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham), with Sands attempting to explain and justify his suicide plan. This face-off between Sands and the priest stands as a monument to acting talent and writing ability; together, it serves as the crux of the film as well as its high-point.
It’s a horrifying display of evil, as we see human beings committing atrocities against one another, robbing others and, ultimately, themselves of their own humanity. While McQueen’s work is a testament to the human spirit and self-belief, it may also be one of the boldest anti-war films ever produced.