July 13, 2010 Leave a comment
Dir. Steve McQueen
Starring. Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Liam McMahon
First time director Steve McQueen sets his sights on a poignant period in the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Set in the Maze Prison just outside of Belfast, Hunger tells of the last six weeks in the life of Bobby Sands who staged a hunger strike in 1981 in protest to the treatment IRA Paramilitaries received at the behest of the Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government.
We are brought into the narrative (and be default, the prison) firstly by a disconnected prison guard (Stuart Graham), and then secondly, by a newly incarcerated inmate, Davey (Brian Milligan). Refusing to “wear the clothes of a criminal” the prison officers proceed to hand him a blanket and escort him, naked, to his cell –with the camera focusing on the nasty cut on Davey’s head; presumably inflicted by one of Her Majesty’s servicemen.
It is the small details that are important to the director; McQueen takes his time telling this story and he does it with a confidence of craft beyond his experience. The camera focuses frequently upon the small details; the buttoning of a shirt, the brushing away of crumbs, the tortured stares of impotent inmates. In fact, for the first hour, Hunger could easily have been conceived as a silent film, with little useful dialogue besides the moans of beaten prisoners and a few meaningless exchanges. There are no preachy monologues, instead it is the non-diegetic sound of old Maggie Thatcher’s political comments that haunt the images of shit-stained walls and piss drenched halls in the beginning..
When the dialogue does come, it is in an astonishing scene between Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham). The camera remains static for nearly 17 minutes as Sands battles back and forth with the priest discussing the religious and political implications of the recent decision to go forth with the hunger-strike. Despite the priest’s protestations, Sands will not be swayed (The two actors allegedly even moved in together and rehearsed the scene some 15 times a day until they were confident they could nail it).
From this point on the mise-en-scene changed. Gone are the beatings and the walls smeared with faeces, for the remainder of the film Sands lays dying on clean sheets and in a clean white room, tenderly cared for by the resident doctor. Still, the film refuses to overload the audience with heartfelt dialogue and patriotic sentiment. Sands remains steadfast in his quest, even when his parents move to the prison to be close to him in his last days. Ultimately, the British government are just as determined and Sands dies, emaciated and covered in sores, but finally pure and free in his heart.
McQueen’s retelling of the real-life events that occurred in 1981 are poignant and carefully crafted without the trickery of melodrama. Even though the film is inherently biased and one-sided in its spirit, never showing of hinting at the crimes the inmates have committed, the strength of conviction displayed in Bobby Sands is difficult to dismiss and the dedication that Fassbender (who went on a crash diet for the role) brings to the role makes it hard not to take sides.
Hunger is a beautiful film because of its tragedy, and it is to McQueen credit that he allows the images, rather than the sentiment, to do his talking.