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Hunger review, Festival Film of the Year Nominee

Inside Belfast's Maze prison in the early 80s, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) faces the brutality of the system and clashes with the Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) as he determines to keep fasting in an effort to trigger change in the classification of IRA prisoners not as criminals but as Prisoners of War.

Given better perspective 25 years or so after the events depicted, Hunger is a feast of cinema, albeit harrowing and confronting. Steve McQueen is an unconventional artist and has made an unconventional film in which we are kept permanently in our discomfort zone. Not only is the film unconventional in its approach to structuring the story, it is also idiosyncratic in the way it is shot.

For example, the central confrontation between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) is the longest single scene and the longest piece of dialogue. The exchange, shot in almost entirely one locked off two-shot with the light behind them as they sit at a prison visiting room table and smoke while they argue, represents the conflicted view of Bobby Sands' actions even within the Catholic ranks.

It also serves as a kind of editorial hinge on which the film swings, not so much judging the participants as quietly condemning them all. The episode represents the low point in the 'Troubles' that tore apart so many lives in Northern Ireland and beyond. Fassbender brings the kind of dedication to his role as Christian Bale brought to The Machinist, where extreme weight loss is a crucial feature of the performance.

The desperation of Sands and his fellow hunger strikers (who are not shown in the film) is driven by Britain's refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners. The arguments about this are complex but the film's focus is on the absence of humanity within the system and the absence of common sense within the hearts and minds of the prisoners. It should be noted, however, that McQueen does show one young prison warden hiding in tears while his colleagues brutally beat naked prisoners with batons.

He also begins the film focusing on one of the wardens, showing how he soaks his bloodied fists. He stares into the mirror just long enough for us to ask the questions that he might also be asking himself. It is in these moments, and the restrained, calculated style of observer, that McQueen, a Turner Prize winning artist making his feature film debut, proves himself to be a serious student of cinema. He also knows that to be successful, even as observer, the filmmaker must be able to pull emotional responses from his audience - and in that he excels.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:

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