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The other night, following the suggestion of Marcella and friend Joe Comerford, who said it was worth watching, I took a look via an internet download at Steve McQueen’s Hunger.   I’d seen a few of his installation works, and thought little (or less) of them, and a few small snippets of the film hadn’t nudged me into taking a look.  But Joe and Marcella gave enough oomph to things, so I sat down and watched, admittedly on the degraded internet version (not so bad actually).

I can’t say I thought it was a knock-out, though it was strong.  On the other hand a depiction of the reality depicted here in direct terms is a can’t-lose proposition, just like shooting death or sex.  There is something primal in us that finds these things, if shown directly, irresistible.   Hunger is a depiction of Bobby Sands, Irish IRA member, and his blanket and then hunger-strike-to-death.   McQueen for the most part shows this in blunt direct terms, and in this the film is most effective; it’s when he opts for more conventional modes that the film stumbles a touch – whether it be with an obvious and klutzy focus pull in one of the opening scenes (in a sink, a prison hack cooling his bloodied knuckles, that does a rack-focus pull to the drain) or in a few needless over-the-shoulder shots, and other nods to film ABC’s.

The lead actor, Michael Fassbender is strong, though it seems less his acting than his self-discipline in semi-starving himself into an Auschwitzian body, ribs sticking out in the end.   The make-up department did a good job for the most part in adorning him with parched lips, bedsores, and the gruesome signs of imminent death.  On the way Fassbender grows his hair long and a beard, has it cut, and does a long static single-take 17 minute or so conversation with a priest (unfortunately then marred with a few closeups of a cigarette and pack, and a shift to a more conventional bit of oblique angled cross-cutting) along with a few other talking parts (in sometimes difficult to understand for Americans Irish slang and pronunciation).  But mostly it is the physical aspect which strikes home.

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hungertable

McQueen’s directorial work is best when his installation mentality is brought to the fore: long static takes, as the one mentioned, or another in which a prison screw mops up the piss in the hallway of a cell block, where the striking IRA members have dumped it (and shit, rather artfully portrayed in the cell scenes, on the walls), and the shot holds as he approaches the camera from far back, virtually to the camera.  The orchestration of violence, and a touch of ambivalence about it is effective as dramatic orchestration, particularly an unexplained killing of the central prison screw when he is visiting his mom in an old folks home.   Remarked on by others were somewhat frequent cuts to very closeups of details, which were found interesting/strong – a view I don’t share: I found them somewhat obtrusive and obvious.  They didn’t carry that Bressonian ring for me.  In terms of time, the actual hunger-strike (which lasted 66 days) is contracted into a handful of scenes towards the end, and works more powerfully for the contraction.

Unfortunately all of this is somewhat spoiled with a somewhat sentimental ending as Bobby lays dying and hallucinates of his youth as a long distance runner, and we get a bit of soppy way-back-then (it wasn’t in the case so way back: Sands died at 26, having been elected as a Member of Parliament in his dying days) and a bit too much of a kind of didactic lesson that Bobby who ran harder than the others had a will of iron.   McQueen had a nice hallucinatory last shot out of the film which would have, I think, made it more powerful had he stopped then.  Instead we get a Mom and Dad deathbed visit, a final dead-body wheeled away, and the previously mentioned dissolves to sappy emotional heart-tug.

That said, it was a pretty good film, if not quite up to the raves it received in Cannes where it won Camera d’Or for first film.  Funded by UK’s Channel Four, it is a film which wouldn’t have found a dime in the US.  Being adamantly uncommercial at base, it is too bad either McQueen’s tastes let him put in the more conventional elements, or that he felt compelled to do so for audience reasons.  Hard as the film is, it would have been better if it were harder.

For you Americans, Hunger won’t be coming to a cinema near you.  Watch for festival listings or go on-line.

_44665048_hunger512McQueen directs Michael Fassbender

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