Hunger (2008): Steve McQueen’s Stunning Debut, Starring Michael Fassbender

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Acclaimed visual artist Steve McQueen (no relation to the star) makes a most auspicious debut in “Hunger,” a devastatingly powerful, utterly compelling chronicle of Bobby Sands, centering on the year in the life of the Irish Republican, who starved himself to death in 1981 as a protest against Maggie Thatcher and the British government’s refusal to allot convicted IRA members the “status” of political prisoners.

Serving as opening night selection of Un Certain Regard “Hunger” is as thematically bleak but far more powerful and accomplished than another gloomy entry, Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness,” which opened the Festival the night before. We live in troubled times in the 9/11 era, and the movies in Cannes reflect that mood.

(Please read below our review of McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which won the 2013 Best Picture Oscar)

Oscar 2013: Best Picture–12 Years a Slave

Tough to watch due to the brutal treatment of prisoners in the Maze camp, and concluding with the graphic depiction of Sands’ starvation to death with all the details of such traumatic event, “Hunger” is an uncompromisingly bold, a harrowing and audacious film in the best sense of these terms.

Even so, an entrepreneurial distributor should pick this formidable feature, which immediately positions McQueen, a Turner-Prize winner artist (whose work I had seen at the Venice’s Biennale) as a major talent to watch. “Hunger” is the most forceful film I saw in Cannes, which raises the question of why it was not included in the main competition, which lacked British representation this year.

Considering McQueen comes from the world of videos and painting, “Hunger” is remarkably and uniquely cinematic, commanding attention for its elaborate and deliberate mise-en-scene and shockingly beautiful imagery. Alongside with its graphic portrayal of prison violence at its most brutal, the film boasts some lyrical scenes with poetic imagery in the last reel, in which the dying Bobby recreates in his memory a crucial event of his life.

I have not put a spoiler alert on my review, because “Hunger” is based on an actual case well-documented by the press while it was taking place. Indeed, Sands’ story has inspired several stage plays and films, including the 1996 “Some Mother’s Son,” with Helen Mirren, though none begins to compare with the power and impact of “Hunger.”

“Hunger” is at once an immediate, visceral experience and a portrait of man designated himself as a martyr but no victim presented from a more critical approach. No doubt, the movie would have generated a different set of feelings had it been made in the 1980s. At present, however, Northern Ireland and its politics are not in the news anymore, allowing both filmmaker and viewers to reflect on those rimes from a more detached perspective. That said, “Hunger” is timely and relevant today in its depiction of the mistreatment of political prisoners, be they Iraqi, Afghan, fanatic Muslims from the Middle East, or and any other radical oppositional group.

McQueen has collaborated on the scenario with playwright Enda Walsh, who had previously penned “Disco Pigs.” Structurally, though not in formal manner, “Hunger” is divided into three chapters. The first crisscrosses the stories of several prisoners and one warden. The second presents a bravura conversation between Bobby Sands and his priest, who questions the utility of his proposed hunger strike. The third and last act chronicles Sands’ decline from starvation and ultimate death.

The saga begins with two convicts in Belfast’s Maze prison’s notorious H-block, where IRA prisoners are kept. In a barren cell whose walls are smeared with excrement, newly arrived inmate Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) and current resident Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) take part in a “blanket protest,” refusing to wear prison uniform, because it represents the government’s refusal to recognize them as political prisoners.

On one level, “Hunger” is a seminal prison drama, showing how the prisoners devise incredible ways of exchanging messages, often written on cigarette papers, within assorted bodily orifices to be smuggled in and out via family visitors.

The film also chronicles in remarkable detail the “work” of guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), whose daily routines and rituals involve checking under his car for bombs, and washing his bleeding knuckles (which due to usage never really heal) before going out in the cold for a cigarette. Raymond lives in constant, justified fear of getting assassinated, which indeed happens in the least likely locale, in a home, while visiting his disabled mother.

The transition from the two prisoners, the protagonists of the first reel, to Sands in the next two reels is so natural that you barely notice the fact that those two have been relegated to the story’s periphery.

A lengthy dialogue scene appears in the middle of the film, in which Sands and his priest battle over pragmatic and moral issues of protest (one with and without emotionalism), micro and macro politics, personal and collective responsibility, and the sacredness of life and death. The use of stationary two- camera set-ups is done with no close-ups almost up to the end, when we see Sands’ face while lighting a cigarette. Unusual for intimate conversations, the strategy pays off, forcing us to listen to the arguments and counter-arguments made by the two men without any distraction of movement or visuals.

Throughout cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, shooting in widescreen, creates some haunting images, some of which have disturbingly painterly quality. The use of long-takes to depict mundane routines of prison life, on both sides of the spectrum, such as a masked guard cleaning up urine in the hallway, cell by cell, are most impressive.

In the last reel, which depicts the protagonist wasting away, the camera focuses intimately on his bedsores and shrinking frame. Intercut with those utterly realistic details are some brief images of Sands’ self-vision as a child sitting in the room, and of a crucial “nature” episode in the forest as an adolescent. It’s a bravura lyrical touch, a reminder of what life could have been for Sands under different circumstances.

Michael Fassbender, who had lost over 50 pounds, gives an astounding performance as the heroic but humble Bobby Sands. His is a far more impressive work than that of Christian Bale, who lost 60 pounds to play the title role in the indie “The Machinist.” Tall, handsome, and blessed with eloquent voice and clear elocution, Fassbender is bound to become a major international star, and it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood opens its gates for him.

Sell-assured, audacious and unflinchingly realistic, “Hunger” is a formidable piece of work announcing the arrival of a major talent.

Cast

Michael Fassbender

Liam Cunningham

Stuart Graham

Brian Milligan

Liam McMahon.

Credits

A Blast! Films production for Film4/Channel 4, in association with Northern Ireland Screen, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, the Wales Creative IP Fund. International sales: Icon Entertainment Intl. Santa Monica. Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith, Robin Gutch. Executive producers: Jan Younghusband, Peter Carlton, Linda James, Edmund Coulthard, Iain Canning. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen. Camera: Sean Bobbitt. Editor: Joe Walker. Music: David Holmes, Leo Abrahams. Production designer: Tom McCullagh. Costume designer: Anushia Nieradzik. Sound mixers: Ronan Hill, Mervyn Moore; sound designer, Paul Davies.

Running time: 93 Minutes