8.11.08

'Hunger' - a review

Craig Mathieson
The Age.com.au
10 November 2008

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Hunger, the debut feature by English visual artist Steve McQueen, is an intensely powerful film that never tries to overwhelm you. It is as unyielding as the men it documents - the Irish Republican Army members who undertook fatal hunger strikes in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1981 - but refuses to force a judgement or demand sympathy.

The focus of McQueen and his co-writer, Enda Walsh, is regressively intimate: inside a prison, inside a cell, inside a body. The background of the IRA's struggle for independence from Britain is barely mentioned, let alone explained. Instead, one frightened young man, Davey (Brian Milligan), who refuses to wear a prison uniform because of standing demands to be treated as political prisoners, finds himself entering the cell of Gerry (Liam McMahon). Excrement covers the walls, urine puddles on the floor, food rots in the corner.

Hunger is a film about how an individual defies the state. The battleground is their bodies. A haircut, never mind a cavity search, is a pitched battle. The mainly Protestant guards - who faced IRA execution threats at the time, have to suppress their individuality to survive.

McQueen's background means he is unafraid to convey information visually. There are several, purposefully framed, unsettling tableaus and McQueen designs three, distinct acts: Gerry and Davey's struggle; a 22-minute conversation between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) about a planned hunger strike (their conversation shot in a single take); and the 66-day hunger strike that culminated in Sands' death (the first of 10 inmates to die).

As he grows increasingly emaciated, Sands' mind wanders, leaving his failing body behind. A prison hospital intern eventually builds a frame around his bed to hold the bed clothes up, as they're too heavy for his decaying flesh to bear.

It is an act of tenderness, but creates a final cell for Sands to inhabit; Hunger is besieged by such harsh, haunting contrasts. It is a film of patient, illuminating strength.

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