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HUNGER
Hunger
Steve McQueen's controversial account of a hunger strike in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison follows celebrity prisoner Bobby Sands. score

4+
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1 (unwatchable) to 5 (unmissable)
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Cast
Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Larry Cowan, Liam Cunningham, Helena Bereen

Director
Steve McQueen

Screenwriter
Steve McQueen
Enda Walsh

Country
UK / Ireland

Rating / Running Time
MA / 96 minutes

Australian Release
November 2008

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Steve McQueen the artist is at the heart of this gruellingly magnificent horror show. It is, perhaps, his saintly aesthetic that makes Hunger such a compelling and unusual film, one whose splendour makes the abhorrent events even more difficult to digest. Paradoxically, this would be easier to watch if it wasn’t so good. McQueen starts before he begins with a series of titles explaining the treatment of inmates in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison, circa 1981. Their claim for political status has led to ‘blanket’ and ‘no wash’ protests though London’s Iron Lady will not be swayed. The prisoners are physically abused and forced into squalid, freezing cells smeared (albeit artfully) with faeces. Celebrity prisoner Bobby Sands decides to renew a failed hunger strike.

Controversy has dogged Hunger through to wining the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Many felt McQueen’s ‘sympathetic’ approach toward the IRA gunman was intolerable, no matter how superbly he told his story. And it is superb. He leads us to Sands (an impressive Michael Fassbender) through several characters in the prison: a guard responsible for his fair share of beatings; a new inmate who receives his share of abuse. Some of it occurs off camera, most occurs in graphic, unblinking detail.

McQueen’s splendid, largely dialogue free sound-mix concentrates attention on the story as it unfolds. The disembodied, nerve-jangling voice of then Prime Minister Thatcher hangs over scenes like a ghost of policies-past. Then the centrepiece – a contrasting, 22-minute, one-shot scene in which Sands and his priest debate the strike like there’s no tomorrow. Which there may not be. But is it suicide, or martyrdom? And can it ever be justified? Big questions that echo all the way to Abu Ghraib and beyond.

Does Hunger glorify assassins of the IRA? Hardly. Is it sympathetic to their cause? If revealing the levels of violence and cruelty inflicted by officers of the British government against its wards – perhaps. Yet McQueen doesn’t flinch in portraying the cold-blooded murder of a warden. Or the smallest detail of Sands self-imposed emaciation. Lingering on a melting snowflake or the contents of a toilet bowl defines the richness of Hunger. It is a film with few precedents and demands viewing for this reason alone. However it is not a film for everyone – and so exhausting is the experience, one that requires the sturdiest of stomachs.

// COLIN  FRASER