In spite of the care and patient control with which this powerful film is shot and edited, "Hunger" is a deeply visceral and moving film, featuring a brilliant performance by Michael Fassbender in the lead role. There are scenes of violent and intense brutality here, but what is more powerful are the simple shots, of a face, of a look, of a gesture, washing hands, of sores on the back of a dying prisoner. While the film is based on real events, with deep political ramifications, the film itself is not so much political as a plea for humanity, that sides with the wounded sensitivity detected in the eyes of those guards who had been unable to desensitize themselves to the routinely brutal treatment they gave to the prisoners in an effort to break their spirits, as much as it sides with the humanity in the dehumanized IRA prisoners it depicts.
The film details the horrific prison conditions that motivated IRA leader Bobby Sands to begin a hunger strike in 1981, that led to his death and that of 8 other prisoners, but also eventually won some concessions for the IRA prisoners, that they had been unable to achieve in any other way. The film opens on one of the guards, washing his hands of the violence he'd inflicted on a prisoner but also unable to wash away his own sense of culpability and fear, and, later, unable to build a connection with the other guards who seem more immune to what they do.
It isn't until about a third of the way through the film that we are introduced to Bobby Sands, who is clearly something of a leader among the men, and it isn't until the final third of the film that Sands takes center stage, and embarks upon the hunger strike that gives the film its title. This is not so much his story as the story of a situation, that affected all who were involved in a number of ways. There is very little in the way of back story here - it is all about the immediacy of the situation, in which the past is mostly irrelevant and what matters is the continuation of the struggle for recognition, as something other than common criminals. What I found fascinating (and brilliantly depicted here) was the core paradox of their prison rebellion: that in order to win recognition as human beings and soldiers whose cause was unpopular but not evil, that in their struggle for equality, they had to debase themselves, to reject clothing, to smear feces on the walls in protest, to exploit and attack their own bodies as a demonstration of the inhumanity of their treatment.
The film is told mostly through carefully controlled visuals, chiaroscuro with a wide range of tonality between the darkest darks and the brightest whites and colors, with a minimum of dialogue, except during a powerful and lengthy exchange between Sands and a priest about his decision to embark on a new hunger strike, and his willingness to take it all the way. While director Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor) has a very distinctive style, his approach here reminded me somewhat of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped. Both films tell their story in a minimalist style, with carefully controlled framings that show only what is necessary to capture the impact of events, leaving aside all that is superfluous. The camera frames bodies and faces very tightly, in medium and close shots, inside the actual prison cells, and only opens up more wide to convey the depth of the prison corridor, or to contrast the openness of the visitor's room or the out of doors with the closed off nature of the cells.
Apart from being overwhelmed by the intensity and importance of the subject matter - this is a story that needed to be told, from inside, and I can't imagine a better telling than this - apart from all that I was stunned by the power of the filmmaking. This is one of the most impressive directorial efforts I've seen in a long time, and an amazing debut by Steve McQueen, and I expect it will be recognized as one of the most important films of this decade by the film historians who care about substance and style over commercialism and buzz. This is definitely one to have for the library of the film lover who likes to study films; there's a lot to learn here. I can't say how happy I am that Criterion is doing the releasing on this one.
Here's what to expect on the disc:
* New, restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Steve McQueen (with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
* Video interviews with McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender
* A short documentary on the making of Hunger, including interviews with McQueen, Fassbender, actors Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, and Brian Milligan, writer Enda Walsh, and producer Robin Gutch
* "The Provo's Last Card?" a 1981 episode of the BBC program Panorama, about the causes and effects of the IRA hunger strikes at the Maze prison and the political and civilian reactions across Northern Ireland
* Theatrical trailer
* A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chris Darke