Wednesday, 3 March 2010


How lucky were we to get two incredible films by acclaimed artists in one year? Pretty damn lucky. Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon was a brilliant third film from Julian Schnabel, which I loved, but Steve McQueen's Hunger probably edges it out for me as my favourite of the two, one of my favourite films of the last decade, and rewatching it the other day confirmed it for me.

The film is about the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s amongst prisoners of The Maze, the notorious Northern Irish prison. Hunger starts with a new prisoner entering The Maze during a protest in which the prisoners refused to wear prison clothing and refused to wash. Beaten, tortured, searched, abused regularly, the prisoners, protesting for political prisoner status, put themselves through further hell, smearing their walls in their own shit, collecting urine and pouring it into the corridors, pouring the food they are given into corners of their cells where they grow maggot-infested and putrefy. Hardly a word is spoken as McQueen allows us to see the steadfast determination mixed with the desperation of this paramilitary subset so full of belief in themselves they will willingly create a world so despicable as to be next door to hell.

Into this prison comes Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), a leader among them, solidifying their resistance with his sanctioned hunger strike. Recognising that their current policies are not winning them any favours, he leads the men on this exercise of starvation, seeing the flaws in previous hunger strikes and working out a way to allow it succeed this time. Where before all prisoners had gone on strike simultaneously, thereby meaning a single person failing destroys the entire resolve, Sands determines that they will instead go on strike one by way, spaced apart. Therefore, one man's lack of resolve is bolstered by the support of those around him, still waiting for their turn to strike. One chink won't undermine the whole plan. Instead, others will be there to patch up the chink, to sew it up and push it forward. Yes, as pointed out by Sands' priest Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), it is effectively suicide. In order to try and make progress with the English captors, Sands and his cohorts are willing to die, to deprive themselves of food to try and show their seriousness, convinced that their show of conviction will convince those with the power, and those behind the ones with power, that is, the people, that they are so serious about their perceived status that they are willing to die for it. Not only are they willing to die for it, they're willing to commit what, as Catholics, is a cardinal sin.

Hunger is a heavy film. It is very, very heavy. It is not easy to watch these prisoners put themselves through the hell that they do. It is not easy watching them thrown naked from their cells, beaten by riot police, searched and probed by police officers. It is not easy watching Sands starve himself and slowly die (this isn't a spoiler, as I assume the story is well enough known...), watching his parents mourn at his bedside at the same time as believing in his motivation, watching his hunger-induced hallucinations as his body wastes away to nothing. But it is, somehow, beautiful. Gaspingly beautiful. In amongst the faeces and the blood and dirt and the overwhelming lack of real hope on a day by day basis, McQueen gives us momentary fragments of light and happiness, simple as they may be. While maggots crawl on the hands of his cellmate, a prisoner jerks off to a smuggled in picture of a girl. Prisoners and their families and friends smuggle in cigarettes and even a radio to allow them a glimpse of the outside world. People love and are loved and believe in their cause so strongly as to deprive themselves of everything. And as desperate as that seems, it is beautiful.

Fassbender is amazing in what was his stunning breakout role. One of the most talked about scenes is the sixteen and a half minute shot of him and Cunningham talking in a visiting room, and it is worth talking about. The two sit at a table, across from each other, and McQueen has such faith, and their performances have such strength, that when the shot ends you feel like you have been holding your breath the entire time. And then he follows on shortly after with an epic close up on Fassbender's face again, a long monologue, a powerful and bold statement of conviction. But it is as much the intimate closeups on tiny little things, on the minutiae that is probably the only focus and distraction for our protagonists that provide the humanity of the picture, the beauty. The simplicity. The intimacy. It is this as much as the drama that binds us, the audience, to these characters.

McQueen does venture into enemy territory, as it were, with a subplot concerning a prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), checking under his car for bombs, trying to maintain a normal life when his is so often under direct threat from supporters of those he is doing such cruelty to. In some ways this could be seen as similar to the treatment of Hitler in Oliver Hirshbiegel's Der Untergang, attempting to humanise him in order that you understand that this is real, this is not some two headed monster from a fairy tale but could quite easily have been your neighbour growing up. But it's also about showing the duality and the vicious senselessness of this war that wasn't a war in the sense that Hitler vs The World was a war. This is ideology, this is religion, this is so much more than politics and ego. And in a war like that there are no winners, only losers. On both sides there is so much death, so much destruction, and do Sands' troops get their demands? Not in so many words. Like all, they settle to stop the dying. It's not a win, but it's something.

5 stars and my infinite recommendations. 

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