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Hunger is both shocking and beautiful

Hunger is both shocking and beautiful

Source: General

By: Christy Lemire

Critic's Rating: 3/5

Friday 27 March 2009

Movie Title

Hunger is both shocking and beautiful

Director

Steve McQueen

Star Cast

Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan

Is Hunger trying to enlighten us about man's inhumanity to man, or merely startle us?

With a mix of visuals that are both harrowing and strangely beautiful ? sometimes simultaneously ? it's hard to tell exactly what writer-director Steve McQueen's aim is with his feature debut.

In telling the story of Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands, who died in a Northern Ireland prison after a 66-day hunger strike in 1981, McQueen approaches his subject with vividly stomach-churning detail. Feces smeared on concrete cell walls, piles of half-eaten swill rotting in the corner, inmates dragged naked down the halls and beaten to a pulp ? it's all there and more, if you can stand it, since McQueen is practically pornographic in lingering on these shots of violence and squalor.

But he's also an experimental film and video artist who's won Britain's Turner Prize, so it's not surprising to see him offer some striking imagery ? some of it delicate, poetic and metaphorical.

Hunger begins in near silence, as a prison guard (Stuart Graham) soaks his swollen and bloodied hands in water in the bathroom sink, looks sadly at himself in the mirror, then gets dressed and eats breakfast before yet another grueling day. (The morning light catches toast crumbs lightly falling on the linen napkin in the man's lap, the kind of observant tidbit McQueen mixes in, mercifully.)

From there, the film unfolds in three segments. The first follows a defiant new inmate (Brian Milligan) who refuses to wear his assigned uniform, and instead goes naked like his fellow Republicans. His cellmate (Liam McMahon) educates him in the ways of protest, through making the most of bodily functions and smuggling rolled-up pieces of information in various orifices.

For even the most hardhearted, this is all difficult to endure ? and yet, there's an unmistakably self-conscious artfulness to even the most crass acts.

Part two introduces us to Sands himself, played with great confidence and guts by Michael Fassbender. While the previous section was practically wordless, this one's all talking, with Sands announcing his hunger strike to the Roman Catholic priest who's become his confidant (Liam Cunningham) and explaining his goal of making the British government recognize the IRA as a political organization.

The conversation is riveting ? Irish playwright Enda Walsh co-wrote the script ? and McQueen presents most of it in one long take. It reveals the quick wit and charisma that made Sands a natural leader, and there's a lively humor and cadence between the two actors that are much needed compared to the film's prevailing starkness.

The scene makes you feel as if you're watching enthralling theater, and you'll hold your breath wondering how long it can go on.

But eventually, Sands must die ? and part three revels in watching him wither silently. Food is brought to him in the infirmary and he doesn't even bother looking at it. McQueen is just as certain in his depiction of Sands as a Christ figure ? the comparison is inescapable and rather heavy-handed, with Sands' stained bed sheet even calling to mind the Shroud of Turin.

Ultimately, Sands comes off as more of an idea, a martyr, than a fully fleshed-out person. And McQueen has made a film about him that's easier to admire than it is to like.

Hunger, an IFC Films release, is not rated but contains graphic violence, nudity and shocking imagery.

Running time: 96 minutes

Rating: Two and a half stars out of four

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