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With HUNGER, British filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen has turned one of history’s most controversial acts of political defiance into a jarring, unforgettable cinematic experience. In Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in 1981, twenty-seven-year-old Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands went on a hunger strike to protest the British government’s refusal to recognize him and his fellow IRA inmates as political prisoners, rather than as ordinary criminals. McQueen dramatizes prison existence and Sands’ final days in a way that is purely experiential, even abstract, a succession of images full of both beauty and horror. Featuring an intense performance by Michael Fassbender, HUNGER is an unflinching, transcendent depiction of what a human being is willing to endure to be heard.
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There's not much in the way of nuance here. The hunger strikers were clearly not political prisoners (in that they were locked up for terrorist acts not for holding or espousing controversial political views - which is normally what we mean by a political prisoner) but this isn't really explored in depth by the film. The potentially interesting issue is that they clearly saw themselves as being politically motivated and that drove them to wish to see themselves as much more than simple terrorists. But again very little of that is explored. It's more like watching a street brawl.
So for me I can't recommend this.
And I have no objection to Art. Hey, some of my best friends are artists.
Most of the many favorable reviews of this film Hunger laud its artistic achievement. Perceiving Art is a totally subjective matter, but most of "us" are modestly certain that we know Art when we see it. This film is indeed artfully made. Brilliantly so! And artfully acted. One has to wonder how Michael Fassbender survived the making of Hunger; the ravages to the body of his character, Bobby Sands, are horrifying to behold. Much is horrifying in this film. The brutality and squalor depicted in the Maze Prison of Northern Ireland, where the 1981 IRA no-wash, no-uniform, and hunger strikes took place, are Holocaust-level horrifying. The film is not a narrative, not a thriller, certainly not an entertainment. It's a depiction of horror, and it's absolutely obvious that director Steve McQueen and his cast of actors are convinced of the Truth of their depiction. "Conviction" is very convincing.
But that drags me screaming up against the question of the relationship between Truth and Art. Art demands subjective verification. Truth, however, pleads for objectivity even while the Art remains ineluctably subjective. After all, Art is made by Artists, who are fearsomely plausible even when they're wrong. Trust me, I'm not asserting that Steven McQueen was wrong, or that the depiction of the Maze Prison is inaccurate! But I don't know! If this were a book of supposed scholarship, I'd be hell-bent on determining its factuality. But it's Art! I'm touchy about Art that exists chiefly to portray a Truth. Is "Art that Lies" better than "No Art at All"? Think of the DW Griffith film "Birth of a Nation" - the filthiest Lie ever told but almost revered for its "artistic" innovations. No wonder many people shun "Art as Truth" in favor of "Art as Entertainment."
Your reaction to this film will depend on your attitude toward the strife in Northern Ireland. The closest thing to an "adversary" or villain in this motion picture is the voice of Margaret Thatcher, which you'll hear over a dark screen. I confess that my disapproval of Thatcher and Thatcherism is potent enough to tip my sympathies toward the IRA strikers all by itself.
The heart of this film is a single conversation between Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest with IRA connections. It's filmed Bergman-style with an unmoving camera at chest-height. It illuminates both the violent brutality that precedes and the wrenching tragedy that follows. If the Belfast accents and slang make it hard to follow the dialogue, don't be too proud to use the subtitles.
The film can be divided into three parts. The first presents the prison conditions that the men suffered before the strike. We see this routine through the eyes of two minor prisoners and a guard. Beatings are regular, the prisoners are left naked with only a single blanket to cover themselves with in freezing weather, and For the most part, the prison officials are portrayed as brutal automatons as stripped of their humanity as the Roman soldiers on Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, which makes the pangs of conscience of a couple of them all the more moving. The second part is a hinge in the action. Sands (Michael Fassbender) comes to the forefront, explaining his motives to a priest (Liam Cunningham) in an ambitious 17-minute single shot. Finally, the last third of the film tracks Sands' weakening and death. Sands' deterioration -- he's soon covered with sores and reduced to a skeleton -- is graphic, and one wonders how the filmmakers did it, because it seems to go well beyond mere makeup effects.
For someone unfamiliar with the Troubles, the prison conditions were sad and outrageous, as if prisoners were treated like this in the early 1980s, then the West was compromising its values of humanity and justice. HUNGER thus introduced me to a sorry episode in recent history and it's valuable for that. However, I'm uncomfortable with the latter half of the story, which goes beyond the principle that everyone, even the incarcerated, deserves humane treatment. Sands is portrayed not only as a man standing up for better treatment in prison, but as a soldier with wider political goals, a lingering desire to unite Ireland by violence. There's also touches of religious symbolism, Sands as Christ figure, which is too pat and downright offensive considering he was an incarcerated terrorist. Yes, even the message that even criminals deserve fair treatment is a noble one, but you've still got to acknowledge that the man's political designs were heinous.
Still, even if the plot is irksome and a couple of shots seem like padding (what's up with the long floor-mopping scene?), there are some fine aspects of the film. The set design is meticulous. Cunningham brings the air of an experienced stage actor into the film, which works surprisingly well. I suspect McQueen will progress to great things and I'm curious to see his future work.
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