Hunger (review)

Painting on Film

Hoorah for Criterion, for taking on this extraordinary film and giving it to us in a spectacular home version.

Pretty? Heh: no. This is not a pretty film. It’s a hard, harsh film, a triumph of the new realism that is transforming British film at the moment: powerfully cinematic, it veers from nearly wordless stretches of intense imagery so vivid they’re surrealistic nightmares come to life to one 20-minute, unbroken dialogue between two men on opposite sides of the same side, an impassionate debate that underlies why one of them is enduring the nightmare we’re enduring alongside him.
It’s like some third-world prison, the block where members of the IRA are being held in 1981 by the occupying British forces in Northern Ireland. The Brits refuse to acknowledge that men like Bobby Sands are political prisoners, and so the prisoners fight back… up to Sands (and nine other men) engaging in a hunger strike that killed him, which first-time director Steve McQueen, in the Criterion interview the accompanies the film here, calls “the most important event in British history in recent times.” As Hunger opens, they are in the middle of a protest that sees them wearing only blankets — they refuse to wear prison garb, demanding their own clothes instead — and not washing. The horrible wonderfulness of how McQueen depicts the conditions here mires you in it: closeups on faces or hands or feces-stained walls — that’s another prisoner protest — so concentrated they become almost abstract; moody shadows in which lurk unspoken determination… on the parts of both prisoners and guards. McQueen, who wrote the script with Enda Walsh, doesn’t ignore the strange plight of the guards: one scene sees a terrible beating of several prisoners by riot-gear-clad stormtroopers who revel in their own viciousness, but much, much harder to take is the one young trooper hiding around the corner, sobbing, unwilling to participate in the atrocity though he is destined to be changed by it forever, for good or ill.

Soon, though, almost without you realizing he’s done it, McQueen — who was a painter and maker of nonnarrative museum-piece art films before he made this, his feature debut — zeroes in on a scarily resolute Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, 300) as Sands. (In a 2008 interview with Fassbender with Guardian film critic Jason Solomons, also on the DVD, the actor explains in some quite dreadful detail how he lost a huge amount of weight over only 10 weeks to portray the starving Sands.) And by the time he has his 20-minute conversation with a priest (Liam Cunningham: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Breakfast on Pluto) explaining why he and his fellow prisoners have to up the ante with a hungry strike calculated to break the political will of the British, you’re with him. In the cold light of day, once the movie is over and you’ve put the DVD away and you’re no longer in that awful prison with Sands, it may not seem as reasonable and rational — or, indeed, it may — but McQueen has created such a potent argument, in the simplest, most visual terms, that you don’t merely understand on an intellectual level but feel on a visceral level that sometimes going to the most extreme of extremes is the only way one has left to exert oneself.

This Criterion edition was prepared with McQueen’s help, and features a vibrant new high-def transfer at the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. (This is the first Region 1 edition of the film, but the earlier Region 2 edition is at 1.77:1, and that remains the only edition available at the moment in Region 2.) Also included on the disc is a making-of documentary and a 1981 BBC news program, “The Provos’ Last Card?” produced four months after Sands’ death.

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