Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A movie review: Hunger (2009)

Hunger (2009)

Director - Steve McQueen

Runtime - 96 min

Bobby Sands - Michael Fassbender
Ray Lohan - Stuart Graham
Father Moran - Liam Cunningham

The one thing you will not find in the Steve McQueen directed look into the events surrounding the imprisonment and eventual hunger-strike of IRA members at Maze prison in Northern Ireland in 1981 is, oddly enough, any real history or background on the who/what/where/when/why. But that is ok, and I’ll tell you why.

What we do find is an intensely traumatic look at the daily ordeals faced by both prisoners and guards, in shockingly gruesome (though watchable, with stomach turning pain) fashion, and an incredibly somber yet liberating tone that allows no real empathy to anyone, or anything.

This is not a date movie, nor is it an action movie. This is a slow movie that starts fast, but the feeling of time is especially important to this film, as it slowly, slowly, eats at you and puts you in the position of these prisoners.

Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is one of many prisoners seeking through any means possible to be declared as political prisoners, thus giving them certain rights not afforded to the general population of criminals. It is, after all, their cause which landed them there, and they were prepared for that. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is heard more than once through voice-over declaring these men as criminals, not political, but criminal.

The continuity of the film addresses the personal anguish of prison guard Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham) who clearly has been beaten down by the job. The routine pummeling of the IRA prisoners can be excruciating to witness, but that is what you need to do to understand the effect of the film. The other more over-whelming focus is on Bobby Sands, as he and other inmates first take part in a strike against prison clothing and bathing (for which they are often severely beaten) and, later on, the hunger strike, of which Sands is the first to die.

Watching Sands die is a major focus of the film. We see him stripped of flesh as he ever so slowly diminishes before our eyes, exposed sores and internal injuries a constant. The film would be not much more than a course in torture, though, if not for the few impactful scenes between Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) in which they discuss in great detail the benefits and illusions of what the hunger strike might accomplish. It is in these scenes that you must pay attention to really grasp what the heart of the movie is getting at, and though the accents are a bit difficult at first, you shouldn’t miss too much.

Released outside the USA in 2008 and a recipient of numerous top awards, this movie has a style of less is more in speaking and sound, and does plenty to give us more of the visuals which still resonate with me as I write this piece. Even now, though, I am not swayed to either side of the cause, for, as mentioned earlier, though clearly a look at the deterioration of an IRA prisoner, the film does not have an immediate feel of one with political motives. Perhaps true students of history will disagree, but I will always remember this film for what it is, a beautifully crafted and hauntingly disturbing piece of art.

***** out of 5

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