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Michael Fassbender in Hunger

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making of documentary.

CINEMA doesn’t get much more provocative than Hunger, Turner prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s harrowing insight into the events surrounding the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike, led by Bobby Sands.

First and foremost, the decision to base a film around Sands is sure to strike a raw nerve with a high percentage of viewers who will question whether a terrorist should ever be treated with sympathy on film?

McQueen, for his part, doesn’t seek to judge, but rather invites the audience to make up their own minds. He also shows the suffering endured by people on both sides of the dispute, allowing his camera to focus not just on Sands and his fellow inmates, but also the prison wardens, and even the men unfortunate enough to have to clean up the mess left by its inhabitants (and we’re talking urine and excrement).

It’s worth noting that McQueen’s film was originally envisaged as a silent movie, and traces of this remain as large segments are dialogue-free, reflecting the solitary existence of life behind bars, or the quiet turmoil of those looking after – and sometimes abusing – the prisoners.

It’s this tactic, as much as anything, which makes the film’s central moment such a grandstanding piece of cinema when, about midway through, Sands meets and converses with a priest… reflecting on his incarceration and subsequent decision to stage the hunger strike.

It’s an exhilarating exchange that feels almost theatrical in origin, as McQueen deliberately keeps his camera still for virtually all of its duration. And the ensuing dialogue doesn’t shy away from the big issues, scrutinising Sands and his motivation for the strike, whilst serving almost as the viewers’ voice of reason.

Thereafter, audiences must endure the hunger strike itself, as McQueen agonisingly depicts Sands’ degeneration (bed sores and all), so that you’re left in no doubt as to the suffering that he endured. Again, though, it’s left up to you to decide whether it was folly or served a valid purpose.

If McQueen’s direction is never less than excellent, then the performances, too, are superb. Michael Fassbender, in particular, delivers the type of intensely physical portrayal that rivals Christian Bale in The Machinist, while Liam Cunningham also excels as the priest. But the entire cast is uniformly excellent and obviously committed to realising McQueen’s grim vision.

Hunger does not make for comfortable viewing, and it remains debatable whether Sands’ story deserves to be made into a film. But as an example of cinema at its most thought-provoking and confrontational, it’s among the best of its type.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 90mins
UK DVD Release: February 23, 2009