Soul Food

Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen makes his feature debut with the bewildering and unforgettable Hunger, the story of the last six weeks of Bobby Sands' (Michael Fassbender) life and death in Long Kesh.

Hunger opens with the sound of dustbin lids banging off concrete streets, a relentless staccato that only stops when we are introduced to Prison Officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) as he sits down to a cooked breakfast. The knuckles gripping his fork are split and raw, the scars from the last beating unable to heal before the next. Lohan checks under his car for a bomb before setting off to work in Long Kesh. A few brief lines of text give us little more than a time and place, before we are plunged into life in the prison, constructed as an Orwellian labyrinth of cells and corridors. As part of their protest against being classified as criminals, the prisoners daub their own excrement on the walls and refuse to wash, making the already hellish prison into an intolerable cess pit.

This is ground that has already been covered in films like Some Mothers Son and H3 but Hunger transcends the formal narrative of history to become a visual poem, at times urgent and immediate and at other times quietly, incessantly devastating.

McQueen and Fassbender have the confidence to allow their pictures to tell the story, removing any unnecessary dialogue and boggy historical context to narrow the focus of the film to a point of brilliant light. The central section of the film is a twenty minute long, unbroken conversation between Sands and his priest Fr Moran (Liam Cunningham) over a rickety table in a visiting room. The camera never leaves their faces as the two men talk about the decision Sands has made, the morality of his actions and the effect it will have on the people outside. It is a brilliantly conceived and written sequence, daring and demanding but the basis of our connection to this unknowable character, an almost silent presence up to that point.

From then on, Hunger details Sands gradual disappearance into skin and bone and it is harrowing stuff. Fassbender is simply brilliant in his deterioration, his calm, skeletal face staring out through the screen, the light in his eyes gradually fading. Context for the revival of the hunger strikes comes from the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, a droning dirge of intransigence that McQueen and his screenwriter Enda Walsh position as the voice of God; the over-ripe tones set against images of desolate trees and scattered birds.

There are a few missteps, a policeman breaking down in tears during a brutal assault and an overly ecclesiastical visual nod to Michelangelo’s La Pieta, but a great film is very rarely a perfect one and these are minor flaws, only obvious because of their sincerity. As a history of the troubles and the hunger strikes, Hunger is more of a starting point than a comprehensive chronicle, but as a wholly immersive and emotionally draining piece of cinema, this is a major work, stripped of context to illuminate a wider point about the inhumanity of places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

is an astonishing film, one of the finest debuts I have ever seen, a difficult story told with extraordinary tenderness and skill, both beautiful and grotesque, spare and full of detail. It is a tour de force and McQueen’s talent blazes from the screen in every frame.

1 comment:

Moodizzle said...

I’ve seen some pretty memorable horror flicks in my time, but Hunger looks pretty chill. When is it coming out under Fangoria's FrightFest? I accidentally came across a fan page of it on Facebook.