Directed by: Steve McQueen || Produced by: Laura Hastings-Smith, Robin Gutch
Screenplay by: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen || Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Liam McMahon, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Laine Megaw, Karen Hassan
Music by: David Holmes || Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt || Edited by: Joe Walker || Country: United Kingdom, Ireland || Language: English
Running Time: 96 minutes
If 12 Years a Slave (2013) was indicative at all of British director Steve McQueen’s filmmaking style, then one would anticipate his comfort with shooting extremely graphic, uncomfortable material. Turns out that’s precisely the case!
Hunger, McQueen’s first feature-film and first feature collaboration with everybody’s favorite German-born Irish actor, Michael Fassbender, covers the first of the 1981 Irish hunger strikes led by Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer Bobby Sands (Fassbender), including the months of political turmoil leading up to the event. The setting will be somewhat confusing for those unfamiliar with the long history of British-Irish/Northern Irish conflict and battle for independence; the narrative focuses on a subtle but significant piece of legal jargon involving prisoner status as well as references to various Irish and British nationalist militias. Once you familiarize yourself with the political background though, the film is a brutally unforgiving dramatic piece of suffering and jingoistic sacrifice.
As the subject-matter and the director’s now famous legacy would indicate, this is an uncomfortable film to watch. Where as 12 Years a Slave is known for its depiction of brutal human rights violations surrounding the American slavery holocaust, Hunger is more viscerally uncomfortable for its graphic bathroom “humor” and desecration of the human body. The fact that McQueen films scenes with prisoners smearing shit over their cell walls and forming “urinals” out of chewed up food, and manages to produce a film that is captivating rather than repulsive, is impressive.
McQueen employs a minimalist cinematographic style that uses no musical soundtrack, long uncut takes with immobile cameras, and emphasizes sound FX over spoken dialogue. There are few spoken conversations in the entire film, save for a wickedly impressive discussion between Fassbender and fellow Irishman Liam Cunningham, which features a 17-minute unbroken take. Other than that lone notable exception, Hunger is an almost silent film in terms of the spoken word and musical accompaniment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie more focused on audio FX than this one, where the scrubbing sounds of a janitor mopping up puddles of piss down a prison ward, and the terrifying banging of batons by riot guards speak volumes more than any dialogue could in their place.
It’s also interesting how the film’s “main character,” played by Fassbender, isn’t introduced until about half an hour into this 96-minute film. I’m not sure what the point of this was, other than perhaps to illustrate the scope of the Irish resistance beyond Fassbender’s Bobby Sands; it doesn’t really damage the film given McQueen’s non-traditional narrative style, but it’s jarring enough to mention. This is less a film about any one man and more the symbolic warfare between two very nationalist groups of people, and even more so about inhumane prison conditions, the determination of the human spirit, and, as Roger Ebert said, “a rock and a hard place.”
There’s not much else to say about this film except to warn you not to eat anything while watching it. The stars of this film are more so McQueen’s direction and how screenwriter Ed Walsh’s characterizations are incorporated into the narrative’s engrossing sociopolitical backdrop. In hindsight, it’s amusing how 12 Years a Slave received so much hype and critical acclaim, but the only reason most people know of this movie is because of McQueen’s later rise to fame upon winning the 86th Best Picture. In any case, Hunger is damned good film, even if the sense of relief you feel after watching it compares to throwing up after a stomach flu.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: McQueen’s strong, idiosyncratic direction is the main reason to see this movie. Hunger relishes ambient environmental sounds with slow pans and long, sustained takes with little to no audible dialogue or music. His imagery of a grotesque political prison and a slow, all-consuming emaciation are beautiful in their own right. Fassbender and Cunningham showcase an Irish political debate that’s also one of the best single-take exchanges shot in years. Fassbender demonstrates how much an actor can say without hardly saying anything.
— However… certain minor characters are thrown about and dismissed with little ceremony or obvious reason, but again, McQueen’s focus is on the narrative’s symbolic warfare and not any one character or set of characters. Hunger is not the sort of film for audiences who require protagonists to anchor their emotional investment in a movie’s plot.
? And always remember, the longer we live, the sooner we bloody well die. Yikes. Remind me to never join a nationalist cause for anything.