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Hunger follows life in the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland with an interpretation of the highly emotive events surrounding the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike, led by Bobby Sands. With an epic eye for detail, the film provides a timely exploration of what happens when body and mind are pushed to the uttermost limit. Written by
Visually striking and inventive film that is emotionally engaging and well worth seeking out
Hunger is a low budget film from a production company more recognisable for its TV work, without any recognisable stars, without a really big distributer to get it around and directed by a Turner Prize winning visual artist making his film debut. Already you would perhaps be considering giving it a miss and maybe this isn't the best time to mention it is a largely dialogue free account of hunger-striker Bobby Sands set entirely in Northern Ireland's infamous Maze prison. This is probably one of the reasons that the film hasn't been as widely seen as it deserves to be or why audiences haven't flocked into screenings of it on a Saturday night. Certainly it is not an easy watch given the subject matter alone but yet it is a compelling and quite brilliant film.
Although the nature of the story leads the viewer to be emotionally invested in one "side" of the situation, McQueen never does anything that opens his film to this suggestion of bias or of scoring political points, if anything his attention to the detail of the tightly focused story does just the opposite. As well as telling us how many hunger strikers died, he point out how many prison guards were murdered during the period and, in my favourite part, introduces us to the prison via one guard soothing his hands (which tells us the frequency of what he does). It is a nice moment but not as telling as the thrill the viewer gets as he checks for bombs and starts his car we are supposed to be on the edge of our seat and we are, swiftly followed by the realisation that this is an experience we would repeat if we were in his driveway the next day or the next.
From here we move into a nearly dialogue free thirty minute opening where no central character really comes forward and our "focus" is on life in the prison for guards and prisoners a story that almost starts without there being a "story". The film later brings Bobby Sands to the fore, delivering one impressive dialogue scene before returning to a dialogue-light charting of his hunger strike on the way to the conclusion that we all know is coming. Yet it manages to be really engaging because of the level of each detail in each scene and the relevance of each scene to the overall film. The scene that has gotten all the mentions and praise is the long dialogue scene between Sands and the priest who comes to see him before his strike. Filmed in three distinct shots, the scene is technically impressive but also allows the main dialogue delivery of the film and the only really moment where anyone is allowed to debate and discuss the actions. Even here McQueen does not allow sides to be taken but keeps it as two men talking. It is engaging, really well written and of course, really well acted.
It is ironic that in this scene the film sits still for ages and allows the frame to remain the same because for the majority of the film McQueen's camera is the star. So many shots are striking that it almost becomes "normal" to be transfixed by an image on the screen. Whether it be a excrement-smeared cell, urine flowing down a hall or a man washing blood from his hands, it looks great and the care taken to construct each image fills the "gap" that the dialogue leaves. The performances are mostly very good and compliment the "few words" approach by bringing a lot when required and wearing their characters convincingly. There are some you may recognise but I didn't. Fassbender is the most memorable as he has the biggest character and the most startling journey, but this should not take away from smaller turns from Graham, Mullen and a few others who are also good. The film is not perfect though. The uninitiated may struggle to understand the bigger picture as you don't get a lot of help with that and those that don't get into the telling initially may be left cold by the approach. However these "weaknesses" are not missed targets or failings but rather the "cons" that have to come with the overwhelming pros of the manner of delivery.
Hunger is not an easy film to watch but it is a great film. It is wonderfully shot with an artist's composure but McQueen is not a "visual style" director who doesn't come with anything else (list your own failed music video director turned film director here) but rather he uses this approach to improve the film and make the telling better. The acting is impressive because of how real they feel and how little dialogue they have across the whole film, but to me the real star was McQueen. He is a visual artist and it shows as he makes the majority of his shots striking and engaging, even if they are not "beautiful". It may get a bit more exposure due to awards chatter but even if it doesn't it is certainly worth checking out.
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