Hunger, 96 mins, rated tba, opening in cinemas 6 November 2008


[This is my review as published in the October 2008 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal]

It’s the last part of the 20th century. A country is in a state of civil unrest. Several factions have been bickering for years about economic, social, and political inequalities and religious differences. Unrest turns to rioting and disorder, then violence and murder. People are killed and wounded, and hundreds of homes are destroyed. Government troops are deployed to restore order. Paramilitary organizations clash with government troops. Detention of suspects without trial is introduced.

The killing continues, and the bombing campaign by the paramilitary spreads overseas. Eventually the local government collapses and is replaced by direct rule from abroad. In a prison set up for “Special Category” prisoners, inmates protest in various ways, and are regularly and savagely beaten. They begin a hunger strike.

Sound familiar? Is the country Afghanistan? Iraq? Is the prison Abu Graib? Guantanamo Bay? No. I am describing the ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland, and the “H-blocks” of Maze Prison during the period 1969 – 1981. This, culminating in the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, is the subject of an astonishing new film by the artist (not the actor) Steve McQueen.

This Steve McQueen is a celebrated and accomplished British contemporary artist. His work has been shown in museums and galleries around the world, and he’s still in his 30s. He was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum as an official UK war artist. He worked in Iraq in 2003, on a project to produce a series of postage stamps that bear portraits of men and women who have died in the conflict, along with the standard profile of the Queen, in whose name they fought. He intends that these be issued as real stamps.

Hunger, his first feature film, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes (best first feature) and the inaugural Sydney Film Prize at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival. It is easily the best film I have seen this year. It’s also the toughest. It’s tough because of its subject matter, which McQueen presents with an unflinching eye. He has said:

I want to show what it was like to see, hear, small and touch H-block in 1981… something you cannot find in books and archives: the ordinary and extraordinary of life in this prison. Yet the film is also an abstraction of what it is to die for a cause.

This, I think, is why the film is so extraordinary. It is pure cinema: it uses sights, sounds, music, voice-overs, blackouts, extended takes, set-piece dialogue, flashbacks, dream sequences, and so on, to produce an impression of H-block and the experience of its inmates. This impression is so visceral, so extreme, that it is often intensely uncomfortable. But Hunger is such an amazing and important film that I felt it my duty not to look away. I have seen the film twice now, and is it even more impressive on a second viewing.

Relative unknown German-born, Irish-raised actor Michael Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, who does not appear until the film is almost half-over. His performance is remarkable – not the least because he had to fast radically for several months in the middle of the film shoot, in order to portray Sands ravaged by his 66-day hunger strike.

But it is not just a performance of physical transformation. Central to the film is a 20-minutes plus, 28-page dialogue between a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham) and Bobby Sands, in which they argue the merits of the political struggle and the morality of choosing death as a means of political protest. Is it suicide or martyrdom? It’s a stunning sequence, providing a philosophical underpinning to the physical protest of the prisoners, for whom the body has become the battleground of last resort.

McQueen uses long takes deftly. He stretches our patience to breaking point, but never beyond it. His judgement in this is impeccable. Like Julian Schnabel with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (LSJ, Feb 2008), he brings an artist’s sensibility to a seemingly unfilmable human experience, and produces a masterpiece.