Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Liam
Cunningham, Stuart Graham
Director: Steve McQueen
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: February 16, 2010
ďI wanna know whether your intent is just purely to commit suicide here.Ē
ďYou want me to argue about the morality of what Iím about to do and whether itís really suicide or not? For one, youíre calling it suicide. I call it murder.Ē
When a film, or any work of art for that matter, has the power to grab my attention upon opening frame, have me pinned to my seat for its entirety and leave me unable to move or speak even minutes after the end credits have finished, thatís when Iím reminded of why cinema is such a great and important art form and why I love films in general. That would fittingly describe my viewing experience of Hunger. It is one of very few films Iíve seen that I can literally describe as a pure work of art.
What first time director and co-writer Steve McQueen, himself a noted British artist, has done here is one of the boldest exercises in filmmaking Iíve ever witnessed. He has taken a true life event and recreated it on film in the most passionate and artistic way imaginable. Through the technique of incorporating very little dialogue and letting his images tell the story, McQueen may have set the standard for how true stories should be told on film, especially one this painful and brutal.
I knew absolutely nothing about the hunger strike that took place in Belfastís Maze Prison in 1981 prior to watching this film. I also knew nothing about Bobby Sands, the prisoner and IRA member who orchestrated the hunger strike as a form of protest against the British in attempt to officially win the political status that had been taken away from them. The remarkably potent effect of McQueenís film has ensured me that I wonít be forgetting the story anytime soon.
Hunger is structured in a most unconventional way, even by docudrama standards. We are given three specific character arcs, each told from within the prison walls. In fact, itís only until more than midway through the film when we are actually introduced to Bobby Sands.
The other two character pieces unfold in the midst of what was known as the Blanket and No Wash protests. The first of which is that of a prison guard (Stuart Graham), who is shown engaging in brutal force towards IRA prisoners who begin to protest by refusing to wear uniforms or bathe. But the guard turns out to be extremely traumatized by his duties.
The other set of characters we follow are two IRA prisoners taking part in that very protest. Davey (Brian Milligan) is placed in a dungeon like cell alongside Gerry (Liam McMahon), and the two begin to put the protest into motion, not just by growing long hair and refusing baths, but by covering their cell walls with excrement and using pages from The Bible as smokeless tobacco. They are eventually subjected to brutality from the prison guards in the form of forced haircuts, bathtub cursory scrubs and nightstick beatings, and believe me when I say that prison violence has never been more difficult to watch.
The story then cuts to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who has been sentenced to fourteen years for gun possession. He has just suffered a great deal of violence from the guards, having taken part in the same protest. It is at this point when he makes the decision to up the ante on the protest methods.
And itís at this moment where, after 45 minutes of nearly no dialogue, the film delivers a sequence so unexpected and so brilliant that I immediately stopped and replayed it. Bobby has a visit with a priest (Liam Cunningham), where he reveals his plan to start a hunger strike protest. Thereís an intense debate between the two on the matter, but we also learn a great deal about Bobby and by the end, we are thoroughly convinced of just how much he is willing to sacrifice himself for his cause.
Itís a 23 minute long dialogue scene, shot in one unbroken take, and I canít even begin to describe the effect this sequence had on me, from both a filmmaking and dramatic standpoint. It does help that this sequence comes way out of left field at just the point when the viewer has gotten used to an almost dialogue free environment, and it also helps that actors Fassbender and Cunningham are absolutely brilliant in their handling of this lengthy exchange, holding our attention with each and every word. I have already labeled this sequence as one of the greatest in cinematic history.
The film then concludes, in vividly graphic detail, with Bobbyís physical deterioration. The hunger strike claimed his life after 66 days, and 9 fellow IRA prisoners would soon follow. No other part of the film is more difficult to watch, and yet McQueen has done it in such a way that doesnít feel exploitive.
All I can say about Michael Fassbender is this; the man is lucky to be alive after giving what has to be the most devastating physical performance ever captured on film. I never thought Iíd see the day when another actor could surpass Christian Baleís weight loss for his role in The Machinist, but Fassbender has done just that. You look at this man and youíd swear that he went on a hunger strike himself during filming.
Hunger is a true masterpiece of filmmaking, and one of the truly greatest films of the past decade. It is not for the faint of heart, but if you can stomach the painful imagery and can appreciate artistic filmmaking at its boldest, you will find this film absolutely impossible to shake from your memory. Again, itís not just a film but the epitome of a true work of art.
Criterion has once again demonstrated their unmatchable brilliance in the Blu-ray market with one of their most stunning looking releases to date. A film as heavily dependent on imagery as this one demands the best HD transfer out there, and I certainly believe it got just that. And of course with McQueen himself supervising the transfer, itís understandable why it turned out looking so utterly phenomenal. Every single frame of the film is not without remarkable detail and that includes the several darkly lit scenes inside numerous prison cells. Colors have also been given outstanding attention as well. Itís yet another firm reminder of why Criterion is the great Blu-ray producing studio that it is!
The DTS HD mix is one that definitely works wonders with such a uniquely constructed film. Though mainly driven by its images more so than dialogue, the sound mix does take great advantage of just about every hint of sound in the prison setting. The many sequences involving prison brutality are made even more so by way of the lossless sound. And the dialogue, especially the crucial exchange between Bobby Sands and the priest, is effectively captured.
A superb level of extras in true Criterion fashion, including in depth video interviews with both director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender. Thereís also a short documentary on the making of the film, including interviews with McQueen, Fassbender, as well as fellow actors Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham and Brian Milligan, writer Enda Walsh and producer Robin Gutch. But hands down the single best supplement is a 1981 episode of the BBC news program Panorama, titled ďThe Provosí Last Card?Ē, which tells of the Maze prison hunger strike and the effect it had on the citizens and government of Northern Ireland. Absolutely gripping! The trailer for the film is also included.
Lastly, we get an insert booklet which features a detailed essay by film critic Chris Drake.
I simply canít praise this film enough, and I truly mean that! Hunger is a film experience I will always remember, and is easily one of the single most powerful pieces of artistic expression Iíve ever seen captured on film. Itís tough to watch at points and is definitely not for the squeamish, but if anything is a strong illustration of why filmmaking is one of the most powerful art forms in existence.