Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Hunger

 

Review by Eoin O’Faolain

If there is one thing hat war has produced that is in any way commendable, it is cinema. Indeed, it’s a testament to the poignancy of setting (and the singular lack of imagination of Academy members), that films concern WWII and concentration camps feature heavily in yearly Oscar nominations. For Ireland, it was our own war that has constituted the staple of our recognised national identity. Last year we saw The Wind that Shakes the Barley win the Palm D’Or in Cannes, Michael Collins was the country’s largest production, and everything in between has made references to “the Troubles” at some stage. The latest is Hunger, another film that has been receiving plenty of film festival awards. But, like all films set during wars, the question must be asked: is it the context that is affecting, or the film itself?
 
Hunger tells the tale of the “dirty protests” and hunger strikes that occurred in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison during the 70’s and 80’s. Members of the IRA who were arrested for crimes were protesting for political status, as opposed to being treated as mere criminals, and the British Government were refusing to recognise them. Plot-wise, Hunger is misleading. The film starts with one of the prison’s wardens, attending to his bruised knuckles before starting another day at work in the violent conditions of his prison. But the film turns to a new prisoner,  Davey, who shares his cell with another non-conformist, as they smuggle messages to their fellow IRA members and assault the wardens with protests using bodily fluids. But then the film turns to its protagonist, Bobby Sands, the man who died in a hunger strike for his rights.
 
Directed by Steve McQueen (no, not THAT one, obviously), this directorial debut has all the hallmarks of an artist’s installation and all the problems of a visual artist unable to handle cinematic narrative. It takes almost 30 minutes to be fully acquainted with Sands, and once that happens, Davey and the warden are cast aside. One could argue that the film attempts to introduce several facets of the situation to ensure a less-blinkered perspective on the situation. This does indeed work for the warden, for by starting with him, we instantly associate, and thus his acts of brutality to Sands and co later in the film feel less unnecessary, less antagonistic, and indeed makes the bold statement that there were no enemies, only victims. Davey’s presence in the film, however, only acts as an introduction to the prison lifestyle and the protests, and the film barely attempts to understand him as a character.
 
Visually, the film is far more impressive. McQueen displays bursts of brilliance in his focus on harsh events (the wardens forcing a bath and haircut on the protestors), and contrast them with rare moments of relief, such as snow falling. But while there’s a photographer’s eye there, at times the pace plods. At one stage, the protestors build mounds of food so they can pour their urine under the cell door and into the jail’s corridors. Later, we see a warden in a plastic suit slowly sweep the liquid from the corridor. This lasts for over a minute, going beyond the required time to emphasise how the protests took the toll on everyone, on how everybody suffered.
 
The film’s best scene is a 20-minute segment in the middle, and where the only real dialogue exists. Written by talented Irish playwright Enda Walsh (who will write his way into quality cinema eventually), the scene involves Sands and a priest verbally sparring about the ultimate purpose of making a hunger protest. The priest calls it suicide, Sands calls it political resolve. The performances are electric, and the dialogue is full of depth and convincing quirks of dialect. It’s a pity the final act of the film turns into a bore, as we see the grotesque images of Sands’ body slowly decaying, dreaming of his past (and using, I might add, some terribly clichéd imagery), until he finally wastes away. It’s slow, it’s obvious, and it tells us very little beyond what we could already assume about self-induced starvation.
 
On a political level, the film attempts to end on a high note. Despite the obvious conclusion, the film seems to claim that Sands’ demise was a brave and worthwhile endeavour. The film closes with an onscreen title claiming that the British government eventually gave in and granted some rights to IRA prisoners. But what the film doesn’t (and probably couldn’t) do was note that this did not contribute to political stability and peace in Northern Ireland. In fact bombings and murders continued through to the 90’s. It was in fact the meeting of the main political leaders of Ireland, Britain, and the Republican and Loyalists parties of Northern Ireland, that created a ceasefire and led to the peaceful life the North now has. Knowing this is important, but it also highlights that the film makes the mistake in attempting to glorify someone who achieved nothing but infamy.
 
Hunger deals with a disturbing issue - but the problem is that it does little in exploring anything beyond what a basic synopsis suggests.  However, what it does do is showcase the potential for two excellent film-makers, Steve McQueen as a director willing to make visual experiments, and Enda Walsh as a writer of intelligent and engaging dialogue.
 
3 / 5 stars

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