Criterion // 2008 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 16th, 2010
"I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul." -- Bobby Sands in his diary on the first day of the 1981 hunger strike
What is now as the Trouble began in Ireland in the late 1960s with a rash of Protestant-on-Catholic violence. It went beyond sectarian terms because the Protestants, at least in Northern Ireland, seemed to have the backing of the British government in their persecution of Catholics. This led to the rise of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that wanted to respond to Britain's position with violence. The IRA carried out bombing campaigns and other violent actions which the British government frowned on. Despite their position, the IRA won concessions from the British in the early '70s: members who were captured were to be given Special Category Status, which meant they were to be treated more like political prisoners than criminals. That meant no prison work, they could wear their own clothes, receive more mail, and organize enrichment programs inside the prisons. In response to escalating violence, the British government repealed Special Category Status in the mid-'70s. In protest, the IRA members imprisoned in H block refused to wear prison clothing, instead going "on the blanket," covering themselves with only the thin blankets they were given despite the prison's freezing temperatures. When that failed they also engaged in "dirty" or "no wash" protest, refusing to shower and covering their walls with their feces. When that too failed, a hunger strike was decided upon, and Bobby Sands became the face of the 1981 Hunger Strike as the world watched numerous prisoners starve themselves to regain their status. Hunger (Blu-ray) dramatizes the hunger strike, especially Bobby Sands' involvement, and it's a harrowing, brutal piece of cinema.
Davey (Brian Milligan, The Boxer) is newly arrived to Long Kesh, aka H Block, aka the Maze prison, and with the help of his cellmate Gerry (Liam McMahon, Snatch) he slowly learns the ropes. His fellow prisoners are engaged in numerous protests to re-earn Special Category Status, and Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds) comes to the conclusion that a full-on committed hunger strike is the only way to achieve their goals.
Hunger is really three movies in one. The first, about 45 minutes long, introduces us to the Maze as well as its guards and prisoners. We see in extreme detail the brutality inflicted by the guards, as well as the depths to which the prisoners are willing to sink to protest their treatment, including smearing intricate patterns on the wall with their own waste. The second part lasts about 20 minutes, and features Bobby Sands discussing their options with his priest. Sands' commitment to the cause is obvious, as is the priest's desire to avoid having his charge commit what might be a suicidal act. The film's third part allows us to watch Bobby Sands transform from an underfed prisoner to a skeletal hunger striker. It's a painful transformation that occurs almost without comment as Sands wastes away.
All of the proceeding is filmed in oddest way. On the one hand, Steve McQueen creates strikingly formal compositions that make the audience totally aware that they're watching a film. But, on the other hand his compositions, and his refusal to use cinematic tricks to heighten the violence, allows us to reach our own conclusions about what we're seeing. It's like McQueen is manipulating us into being unmanipulated. The effect is a brilliant one, and produce a film that is not only emotionally effective, but simply gorgeous to look at despite the filth and vileness being depicted.
The film also succeeds in presents some of the most fantastic performances ever gathered into a single film. Every single actor is totally convincing in their part, from Brian Milligan as the newcomer to Michael Fassbender as Sands. The dedication it took to get to the skeletal state which many of the actors need is amazing, but I get the feeling from watching this film that they could all have been twenty pounds overweight and still have sold the emotional depth of their situation through their eyes and voice. Although the silent sequence (which take up most of the film's running time) are amazing, the real tour-de-force is the scene between Sands and his priest and the acting there is top notch since it has to carry both the emotional core of the film along with its exposition.
I'm running out of ways to say that Criterion has produced another excellent hi-def release. The 2.35:1 transfer is simply gorgeous, perfectly complimenting the bleak cinematography. Detail is high, and the muted blue-and-gray tones are excellently reproduced. The audio track is an immersive experience with clear dialogue and a beautiful reproduction of the ambient effects.
Extras include an almost 20-minute interview with director Steve McQueen where he discuss the film's production, what he hoped to achieve as well as how he achieved it. The interview with Michael Fassbender is equally interesting as the star discusses his interpretation of the iconic Sands as well as his preparation for starvation. The disc also includes a 13-minute making-of that covers much of the film's production and the history of Sands. The extra that provides the most background to the historical situation that led to the hunger strike is The Provos' Last Card?, a piece produced for British television while the hunger strike was still going on. Lasting 45 minutes, the show gives an excellent overview of the IRA and the hunger strikes. The booklet includes an essay by Chris Darke that provides a nice overview of the film.
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Hunger: it is too harrowing, too brutal. If you want to watch it, by all means do so, but the decision to watch it should be yours alone. There are also those who will find it too realistic to watch, while others will find the long moments with dialogue boring.
On the filmmaking front, I think there are two moments that don't quite fit the film for me. When Bobby Sands discussing his drowning of a fawn that has been injured it feels a little too trite, and the ending, although it ties well with Sands' history and psychology, seems heavy handed considering what has come before.
The 1981 hunger strike was a mixed blessing: the British government eventually restored all the freedoms the strikers were seeking, but ultimately denied them their actual Special Category Status. In the same way Hunger is a mixed blessing. It presents an honest portrait of an historically important moment, but the sheer brutality of the conditions make it a difficult film to watch. Whether one chooses to experience the horrors of Long Kesh, Hunger has been treated well by Criterion on Blu-ray with an amazing audiovisual presentation and informative extras.
It's up to history to judge Bobby Sands, but Hunger is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #71
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated