Flesh. Faith. Feces. In "Hunger" (2008), political resistance is rooted in the body, a body pushed to the limit and ultimately fueled exclusively by belief.
"Hunger" is the story of Bobby Sands, a Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer who led the 1981 Irish hunger strikes at the now infamous Maze Prison (Her Majesty's Prison Maze, also known as the H-block.) In an ongoing protest for IRA members to be granted recognition and rights as political prisoners, Sands and dozens of other prisoners refused food until their demands were met, though the film suggests Sands fully expected to become a martyr for the cause. Sands died after 66 excruciating days, making him both a media sensation and a rallying point for IRA sympathizers.
But Sands (Michael Fassbender) appears surprisingly late in his own story. First-time feature director Steve McQueen begins instead with a prison guard (Stuart Graham) preparing to leave for work in the morning. He eats a hefty British breakfast (bangers and something or other, of course), checks under his car for bombs and steels himself for another day on the block. McQueen's sympathies indisputably lie with Sands and the other prisoners, but he provides some time (not equal time, but more than a fleeting moment) to the authority figures, suggesting that they too are the product and, to some extent, victims of a fascist penal system. Later we also see a riot guard crying after his role in a savage beating.
When Sands finally appears he isn't even identified at first and, as far as I can recall, is only called Bobby throughout the film (near the end his parents are identified as Mr. and Mrs. Sands.) The script, written by Irish playwright Edna Walsh and McQueen, eschews exposition in favor of a full immersion experience that occurs almost exclusively within the walls of the prison.
The prisoners are not only stripped of power but are literally stripped of clothing. They demand to be allowed to wear their civilian clothes as political prisoners would be. Refusing to wear prison garb, they clutch only at thin blankets in their dank cells. They use the only thing they have left to show resistance, their own bodies. The prisoners smear the walls with feces, and funnel their urine into the prison hallways. The guards respond by trying to break these resisting bodies. Malnourished, naked prisoners are routinely beaten by guards clad from head to toe in riot gear. The prisoners are forced to undergo violent cavity searches and to have their hair shorn off by ham-fisted jailers wielding dull scissors.
It might sound odd to say that a film about blood, piss and shit can be beautiful, but McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning visual artist, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt shoot even the most grotesque sequences with an aesthetic rigor that borders on portraiture. The film's tour de force centerpiece is a 20+ minute conversation between Sands and a parish priest (Liam Cunningham) which consists mostly of an unbroken 17-minute shot. This static two-shot of a dialogue scene, potentially a major drag, is transformed into a work of art as the characters are shot in near-silhouette, just barely limned by sunlight. The long take also features some of the most stylish use of cigarette smoke since Hollywood's Golden age.
The film's final act shows Sands gradually wasting away as he uses his body for one final act of defiance. Michael Fassbender, most recently seen as the heroic film critic in "Inglourious Basterds," put the finishing touch on a physically committed performance by spending ten weeks on a stringent diet, transforming his already trim body into a skeletal frame. Sands, rail-thin and clad in a white sheet, is unmistakably likened to Christ and the last scenes are imbued with a sacred aura as we watch him make the ultimate sacrifice.
The film stirred a mild controversy in Britain where conservative critics complained about the film's unabashedly sympathetic portrayal of Sands, but it didn't rile as many feathers as Steven Soderbergh's "Che" did in the same year. McQueen won the Camera d'Or at Cannes (given to the best feature debut) and pulled in dozens of critical awards across the globe. Fassbender was similarly feted. It's a remarkable debut by any standard.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-Ray transfer makes up for the minor shortcomings of the SD version with sharper contrast and a richer overall look.
The DVD is presented in DTS-HD Master 5.1. As you would expect, the lossless sound is an improved over the SD transfer with the lower-register effects standing out even more (batons thumping on riot shields, prisoners slamming into doors, etc.) Optional English subtitles are provided which will be essential to many American listeners who can't always process the Irish brogue. Minimal instances of Gaelic dialogue are not subtitled and aren't supposed to be.
The Blu-Ray includes a Trailer and four special features starting with interviews with McQueen (2009, 18 min.) and Fassbender (2008, 14 min., conducted by critic Jason Solomons.)
A brief "Making of" Feature (13 min.) cobbles together interviews with cast and crew, including writer Edna Walsh who I would have liked to hear more from.
"Provos' Last Card" is a 1981 installment of the BBC news program "Panorama." It was recorded four months after Bobby Sands' death. Reporter Peter Taylor visits the Maze prison and speaks to political figures on both sides of the struggle to measure the immediate impact the hunger strikes were having on the public perception of the IRA. This feature provides context not present in the film, though its perspective is obviously a limited one coming so soon after the hunger strike.
The slim insert booklet features an essay by critic Chris Darke.
With "Hunger," director Steve McQueen delivers one the more memorable debut features of the last several years. The film is a harrowing, intensely physical experience that offers no respite from start to finish. It's not one you're likely to forget any time soon.
"Hunger" is Criterion's newest entry in their new focus on contemporary cinema. They have also released "Revanche" (2008) this month and "Summer Hours" (2008) will follow in April.
Criterion has also released "Hunger" on SD. As usual, the Blu-Ray is currently for sale at Amazon cheaper than the SD. The Blu-Ray is a significant improvement over the SD and at a lower price it is obviously he superior option.