26 Nov 2009
Hunger, the debut film from Turner prize winning artist Steve McQueen, tells with astonishing brevity and style the story of Bobby Sands and the hunger strike that he undertook in 1981 within the confines of the Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. Any film tackling such a polarising subject is bound to be controversial, not to mention relentlessly bleak and extremely difficult to watch. That is a given. What is not though, is that a first time filmmaker could produce something so astonishing, so overwhelming, that it immediately qualifies as one of the most significant British movies of all time. I use the word lightly, but this truly is a masterpiece. McQueen displays not only a preternatural command of his craft, but also a willingness to experiment, that should hopefully mean one day his name is mentioned in the same company as Tarkovsky, Bergman, and even Kubrick. Anyone who can find the beauty in a close-up on a bloodied knuckle, or a wall smeared in excrement clearly possesses a unique gift. This journey is not for the faint hearted, but those willing to take it will be rewarded in spades.
Hunger contains numerous moments of such beauty and exquisiteness that attempting to convey them verbally is a thankless task, but one sequence, the only dialogue-heavy scene in this remarkable movie, is already destined to become the stuff of legend. Sands meets with his Priest to discuss the impending strikes, and as they sit and smoke the camera remains perfectly still for well over ten minutes, one of the longest single shots in film history. This is no self-congratulatory pat on the back though, or empty moment of artistic pretension. The stillness and clarity that passes through Sands as he reaches the monumental decision to end his own life is captured perfectly. Plaudits too though have to go to Michael Fassbender for playing Sands. His commitment to the role is paramount, and the physical deterioration that he allows himself to endure to successfully convey the scale of Sands’ suffering is truly astonishing. I can only imagine the horror that his friends and family experienced during the films production as he literally allows himself to waste away. This is a performance that genuinely tests the limits of what the cinema is capable of, and the bravery and honesty of it is symptomatic of this film as a whole.
Hunger is a movie that goes beyond politics and religion, and reaches out to something far more important, our humanity. It isn’t interested in choosing sides; it empathises with everyone, successfully articulating the desperation and despair created by these extraordinary circumstances. In any situation where men are prepared to die for their political beliefs there are no winners, only losers, and McQueen captures this perfectly through the non-judgemental gaze of his camera. It is a breathtaking statement, a monumental achievement, and belongs to that rare-category of life-affirming cinema that reminds you why this is truly the most powerful art form known to man. There can be no higher praise than that.
Director: Steve McQueen