Hunger Film Review - A Wonderful Transition for Artist Steve McQueen

In a migration between artistic genres, Britain’s prominent visual artist, Steve McQueen, directs his first feature film, Hunger.  A laudable endeavor, Hunger is principally set in the Maze Prison of Northern Ireland and follows several storylines encompassing the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike.  Essentially a collage of indelible moving pictures, save one prominent dialogue-driven scene, Hunger is of its own unique style in dramatizing this well-known history.

The story, as it were, would be shallowly over-simplified if categorized as plainly the story of Bobby Sands.  While this through line is essentially where the focus is maintained toward the conclusion, the film actually breaks the classic mold of storytelling by nearly equalizing three separate storylines:  First the story of prison officer Raymond Lohan ( Stuart Graham), who tries to balance a normal life with his duties in the infamous H-Block of the Maze Prison; next H-Block’s newest prisoner Davey Gillen ( Brian Milligan), who enters the cell at the peak of the blanket protests and quickly learns essential survival skills through the obdurate tutelage of his cellmate Gerry Campbell ( Liam McMahon); and finally, Bobby Sands ( Michael Fassbender), who decides upon a second and more decided hunger strike after the turbulence in H-Block reaches unprecedented tumultuousness.   

Maze Prison's newest inmate Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), is brutally ushered through H-Block

The effect of these equally-balanced foci is, in turn, a thorough shifting of protagonists. Often with films that have multiple storylines of shared importance, the tendency is to distribute the storylines in portions and draw them together in a final conclusion.  Hunger, on the other hand, takes each story progressively and almost entirely dismisses it when it reaches the next plot.  While the breaking of this particular mold is appreciated, the effect almost segregates the overall film.  It’s as if we are seeing three shorts married together under the umbrella of circumstance.  You’re almost left wondering, “well why these three stories in particular?”

The style of this film truly draws to the strengths of director/writer Steve McQueen.  His background as an artist plays a pivotal role in the telling of this story.  The majority of the film is laconic in its almost complete absence of dialogue.  The film consequently becomes a sort of visual collage or photo-journalistic approach to documenting the history of the piece.  It’s literally as if you picked up a picture book of images from the Maze Prison and flipped through them; these images, however, just happen to move.  It’s quite beautiful in it’s effect. 

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in "Hunger"

Furthermore, what justifies the silence of these scenes is a climatic culmination in a 25-minute, single shot, one-take scene between Bobby Sands ( Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran ( Liam Cunningham).  This magnificent scene essentially opens the story of Bobby Sands.  The theatricality of the scene and the simplicity of the single shot bred a wonderfully sagacious interpretation of the hunger strike.  In this scene, Sands announces to Father Dominic Moran that he will soon begin a second and hopefully more effective hunger strike.   Illustrating the virtually-promised suicide of the strike, Father Dominic Moran almost adopts the voice of Sands critics, accusing him of seeking a solid place in history books.  The dynamics of the scene is truly worth the silent wait, and both Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham prove their ability to survive beyond the patchwork structure of traditional filmmaking. 

Ultimately the piece is well worth the view.  Occasionally style held far too strong a hand over substance, but the unprecedented perspective of Steve McQueen surmounts as a breath of fresh air.    

The highlighted, twenty-five minute single take scene between Bobby Sands(Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran(Liam Cunningham)in Steve McQueen's "Hunger'

Hunger is presented by IFC Films and slated for limited release in Los Angeles December 5, 2008.

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