Criterion // 2008 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // February 18th, 2010
The Criterion label gives Steve McQueen's powerful Northern Ireland set debut an excellent DVD release.
Hunger is a beautifully made but unstoppably brutal depiction of life in the H-Block of the Maze prison during the Northern Irish troubles. Directed by artist Steve McQueen (no, not that one!), Hunger is a haunting and completely enthralling drama, acted out beautifully by a young and promising cast. The lead is Michael Fassbender who is of course on the back of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds set to become a huge Hollywood star but his brilliant performance as legendary Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands fully displays just how versatile an actor he is. Adding to the superlative main feature is a storming disc courtesy of Criterion, which looks great and comes packed with some fascinating bonus content.
The year is 1981. Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister of the UK and as "The Troubles" rage hard in Northern Ireland, she refuses to give IRA prisoners on the H-Block the political status they desire. Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds) is proposing a second hunger strike be attempted in order to secure the concessions the prisoners want, much to the chagrin and horror of family and friends. Steve McQueen's film follows Sands as he embarks on the eventually fatal yet monumental hunger strike in question and offers intriguing glances at the conditions the prisoners put themselves in for their beliefs.
Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen are the true heroes of this excellent motion picture. The latter directs with poignancy and without bias, capturing the raw and unenviable circumstances without taking a political side. The film is riddled with poetic imagery and releases of style and artistic understanding that give the drama inside an extra dose of weight and emotional pull. McQueen favours long and curious shots that often focus on both the bleak and beautiful in the world around his characters. It's rare that a debuting director would attack the material with such confidence in his vision but McQueen has the skill and integrity to really pull it off. Earlier on in the review I name checked Quentin Tarantino and this is who McQueen is most reminiscent of. The two men share different shooting and filmmaking approaches but their audacity and unabated talent is exceedingly similar. McQueen has given this film a look and feel no other director today probably could; he's an original and a damn fine orchestrator of engaging dramatics.
Fassbender does a brilliant job of capturing the nobility and flaws of Sands in one fell swoop, painting him as a man dedicated to his cause but with less remorse for past actions than one might hope. I'm too young to have experienced these events unfold firsthand, but the performances have an organic and natural feel that draws the viewer in and gives the project an unapologetic realism. One sequence in particular sees Fassbender and Liam Cunningham (playing a desperate priest) face off over the proposed and dangerous course of action. It goes for nearly 17 minutes without a cut and deserves accolades for the brave and immersive acting provided by both individuals. The stubborn nature of the scene in a way beautifully sums up the nature of Irish and British politics at the time and actually features about 70 percent of the dialogue spoken in the entire movie. Hunger is for large swathes completely silent and relies on its director's stunning thirst for stimulating visuals and the forceful and borderline barbaric actions commonly found in that era of Irish existence. The exchange between Fassbender and Cunningham is also a mild technical marvel; rarely does low budget filmmaking hit such intrepid and celebratory heights.
Hunger may be a vicious and harrowing experience, but it imbues both sides with thoughtful points and performances. Stuart Graham (Omagh) plays a prison guard wonderfully and through his reserved and saddened nature we get real traces of humanity. His fate is sealed in a stunningly immediate and devastating moment, hammering home the arguments for both political camps in the country. The setting feels well crafted and the atmosphere is intoxicatingly grimy and nihilistic, a feeling made even more pertinent via the aggressive shooting manner McQueen adopts every so often. The physical commitment that the role of a starving Sands requires is obvious, but Fassbender acquits himself without fear or hesitation. The men behind Hunger have shown they are filmmakers in the truest and most passionate sense, a fact that allows their work to be an invigorating and emotional production.
Criterion has put together a super release for Hunger. Steve McQueen oversaw the detailed and visually rich picture transfer, leading to one of the best looking standard-def releases I've ever seen. The DVD set comes with a booklet filled with stills and a short essay on the movie by film critic Chris Darke. It's a prompt but worthwhile read for admirers of the film. On the disc itself we get substantial interviews with both Fassbender and McQueen, who clearly have huge admiration for each other and a vast amount of pride concerning the movie itself. The making of contains interviews from all the key participants (though in a less thorough manner) and runs for about 14 minutes. The best piece of extra content is a special broadcast made in the UK at the time of the events depicted called The Provos' Last Card. This probing investigation into the events and subsequent consequences is gripping and provides a necessary context for those unfamiliar with this era in Irish history. Criterion ultimately has continued to do superb work on the home entertainment front with this release of Hunger.
A heartfelt and extraordinary motion picture, Hunger deserves to be seen and experienced. There currently exists no better way to endure the visceral project than this top notch DVD edition.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated