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Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: Hunger (2008)

* * * *

Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon

Hunger is not for the faint of heart. It spares the viewer nothing in its exploration of the hunger strike entered into by prisoners at Her Majesty's Prison Maze as a form of protest against the inhumane and often barbarous conditions of the prison. Early in the film a new inmate is brought in and refuses to wear a prison uniform. The guards look at him wearily – this is old hat to them now – mark him down as a “non-confirming prisoner,” have him strip and give him the blanket which will be all he’ll have to wear every day. He’s escorted to his cell which is covered wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with his cellmate’s excrement. I guess he wasn’t expecting company.

The story progresses like a relay race, starting with its focus on Raymond Lohan, a guard (Stuart Graham), switching to the prisoners Davey (Brian Milligan) and Gerry (Liam McMahon), and ending finally with Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners. The common link between all of them is the toll that the prison conditions take on them. Lohan, for all the passion he displays during moments that can probably best be described as torture, does not relish his job. He seems to spend half his time soaking his wounded hands and the other half worrying that he’ll be assassinated. Of course, he has it easy compared to the prisoners, whose cells crawl with maggots and who are subject to brutal beatings on a regular basis.

The film never reveals the specifics of any of the prisoners’ crimes, which has the effect of isolating them from their actions, allowing us to see them as human beings rather than terrorists. It’s difficult to watch this without thinking of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The men in The Maze have participated in criminal acts, but that of course does not make them fair game to be subjected to criminal acts once they're locked up. That being said, the film isn’t necessarily taking sides and the guards aren't presented as a monolithic evil entity. It begins with Lohan going through the routine of his morning which includes checking his street for snipers and looking under his car for bombs. He and his wife live in fear and rightfully so, as the guards are constant targets of the IRA. It isn’t difficult to understand how it is that these men who spend every moment away from their workplace looking over their shoulders then come to work and take all that fear and convert it to aggression and anger. It’s a cycle of violence that accomplishes nothing but the escalation of violence and with each reprisal, the ante gets upped just a little bit more.

The starkness of the film is inescapable. Save for a brief sequence near the end, there is no musical score, just the sounds of violence and suffering in the prison; and many scenes pass in long, unbroken shots captured by a static camera. One such scene is a long dialogue between Sands and a visiting priest which is absolutely mesmerizing, moving from easy banter and small talk to a debate over Sands’ latest political manoeuvre – a large scale hunger strike – and the political and theological ramifications of what he’s undertaking. The scene is so engrossing that you forget you’re watching a movie and it’s jarring when it switches suddenly to a close up of Sands as he enters into a monologue about the mercy killing of an injured faun when he was a child. He believes in the rightness of what he’s doing, though the film doesn’t really venture into the politics of the situation. Hunger is essentially apolitical, though Margaret Thatcher makes a couple of brief appearances, a disembodied voice played over the prison scenes. It’s an interesting approach and more effective than actually seeing her speaking those words in news footage in that it highlights the chasm that between the political rhetoric and the reality. The government in this film is some distant thing, passing judgment on the prisoners while being indifferent to their suffering. The film is about that suffering, not the politics in which it has its roots.

As the film nears its conclusion, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch. The focus is on Sands wasting away and actor Michael Fassbender was obviously very invested in the role, given the dangerous amount of weight he lost to play it. It's really shocking to see him towards the end, so shocking that it detracts a little bit from the strength of his performance throughout the film because the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about it later is how he looked. Despite that, though, Hunger doesn't feel at all exploitative. It is a powerful, wonderfully crafted, minimalist masterpiece about human suffering.

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