Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Hunger is a grotesquely beautiful film that captures both a finite time in history and the enduring will of the human spirit. It features mesmerizing performances, powerful visuals, and a sensory experience unlike any other film this year. What it does not do is present a neutral and unbiased viewpoint.
A thunderous and steady clamor opens Hunger as a room full of people protest by banging on tables. It’s 1981 in Northern Ireland, and the “war” between the British government and the Irish Republican Army is in full swing. Over 2000 people have died as a result of military actions, bombings, and assassination. The Maze prison is home to many captured IRA members who have recently had their status as political prisoners taken away by the Brits. In the middle of this slow-motion catastrophe sits Bobby Sands who chooses to start a hunger strike to protest not only their status as prisoners but also their treatment as human beings. This is a true story.
Hunger is broken into three sections or chapters. The first serves as an introduction to the Maze and its inhabitants. We meet Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham), one of the prison guards, as he soaks his bruised and blistered knuckles in a hot sink, and we watch his morning at home filled with attention to the small things that often go unnoticed. Buttoning his shirt, wiping breakfast crumbs from his lap, kneeling down beside his car to check for bombs… an eerie silence pervades that last bit as he checks the car and with his wife watching from behind a curtain, he looks up and down his quiet neighborhood street before driving off to work. His life is a silent dread compared to that of the prisoners he supervises.
The prisoners are knee deep in a ‘no wash’ protest wherein cleanliness of their bodies and their cells is forgone in favor of taking a united stand. Walls are caked in feces, piles of bug-ridden food rots in the corners, and the men themselves are unshaven and bedraggled. To combat this the guards run the men one at a time through a gauntlet of flailing batons and boots to beat them down before administering forced baths and haircuts. It’s a brutal sequence made even more emotional when the shot widens to include a guard falling apart on the other side of the wall.
Chapters two and three focus on the introduction of the hunger strike plan and the strike itself, and they also properly introduce Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). It’s the middle section that stands apart from the rest of the film and receives much attention and divided affection amongst viewers. Sands sits and talks with his childhood priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), in a single, static, sixteen-minute shot. The two sit facing each other, in profile, as smoke from their cigarettes dances in the air between them, and they discuss the merits of Sands’ decision. The prisoner sees it as a selfless act of sacrifice while the holy man sees it as a selfish act of suicide. Their verbal clash is framed and performed beautifully by both actors, and the scene is an intentional reversal from the silent violence that precedes it. “You start a hunger strike to protest what you believe in,” says Moran. “You don’t start it already determined to die.”
The final third of the film follows Sands to his inevitable conclusion and returns to the opening sections preferred use of images over dialogue. Words are spoken, but most of the communication is done with facial expressions, visual flashbacks, and Fassbender’s soulful eyes. Writer/director Steve McQueen’s prior experience as a visual artist is present throughout the film, but reaches its high point here as Sands’ determination and will are coupled with images of birds swooping through the air and young boys running through the woods. It’s a strangely dignified yet devastating denouement for both a man and a time in history.
The only real criticism of Hunger is that it fails to provide a neutral view of the involved parties. In all fairness, the film doesn’t need to do so, but both the director and most other critiques have claimed that it does. True, there are no overtly verbalized demonizing statements made against the British government or the system, but as any good artist knows… a picture is worth a thousand words. We see guards mercilessly beating, probing, and humiliating prisoners for fully one third of the film, but we don’t see any real violence from the IRA. (There is one assassination of a prison guard outside of the prison, but it’s committed by a man we hadn’t met before and never see again.) The men are imprisoned but we’re never told for what crimes so they’re basically clean slates for our sympathies. McQueen has chosen a side, and while tears and looks of doubt on the faces of two of the guards is a minor effort, the director’s sympathies are clearly with the prisoners.
There’s no denying the power and beauty of McQueen’s debut film though. It impresses and challenges simultaneously and it bodes well for a long directorial career. It’s at times nothing short of visually stunning and an intense sensory experience filled with images, smells, and tactile pain. Can you argue the film falls a bit too heavily on the side of art over substance? Of course, but with art this beautiful it’s a forgivable sin.
Hunger is currently in limited theatrical release. Check out the trailer below.
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