War begins with ideologies and ends with orphans and widows, but most films about political conflict and social upheaval tend to focus on the actual combat that lies in between, if only because it’s the most superficially cinematic. Sadly, most war films not only fail in their depiction of battle, but when they attempt to focus on the causes that give rise to organized conflict, and the victims that suffer as a result, they usually don’t do very well in these depictions either. War may be sufficiently cinematic to possess its own genre classification, but the majority of films that fall into the category do an inadequate job of conveying the scale of human tragedy involved. However, Hunger succeeds brilliantly in illuminating—albeit obliquely and indirectly at times—the sacrifices required by strong political beliefs, and the impact that these sacrifices have on others.
Of course, Hunger is not a “war” film in any traditional sense, but rather a prison drama about the incarceration of IRA members in the HM Maze facilities of Northern Ireland, focusing largely on the 66-day hunger strike of prisoner Bobby Sands, and his subsequent death, in 1981. Visual artist Steve McQueen’s feature directorial debut depicts the prisoners’ struggle with prison officials as a series of formally rigorous, corporeal tableaux that isolate the physical reality of prison life from its political context, and McQueen has been accused of foregrounding the pure aesthetics of suffering at the expense of any social analysis (similar allegations were raised about Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, which has endured as an anti-war masterpiece). But Hunger can also be seen as another entry in an imprecise subgenre of contemporary English-language films that communicate the horror of war and terrorism by stripping away political concentration and narrowing in on the sheer visceral sensation of the events, whether the current Iraqi combat of The Hurt Locker or the two handheld-driven “You Are There” docudrama trauma-thons by Paul Greengrass, United 93 and Bloody Sunday (the latter also chronicling “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland). But whereas those other films communicate intensity through the adrenaline-fueled shock of mass violence, McQueen’s film is principally propelled by starvation and degradation, piss and shit.
Indeed, for much of the running time, the stark specifics of raw physicality are the only images we are given, the only entry points into the story: the world of Sands and his fellow inmates is reduced to details so vivid that one can almost smell them, with the puddles of protesting prisoners’ urine flooding underneath the doors of cells, and their feces caked into abstract expressionist swirls on the walls. As Sands and the IRA battle with prison officers and Thatcher’s administration for the right to regain status as political prisoners as opposed to common inmates, McQueen portrays their stance through obsessive, meticulous detail. Scarred knuckles, food crumbs, communiqués smuggled through body cavities, discarded meal remnants, and errant houseflies are magnified and fetishized, with the ultimate manifestation of the film’s uniting of personal, political, and physical being the transformation of actor Michael Fassbender as Sands.
Fassbender (who has been having a breakthrough year with this film, Inglourious Basterds, and Fish Tank) famously lost over 30 pounds from an already thin frame to incarnate Sands during the final, fatal stretch of his hunger strike, and the results on screen are—like much of the film—not for the squeamish, though they clearly remain more dramatically justified than similar actor stunts (i.e. Christian Bale’s anorexic turn in The Machinist). It is also at this juncture of the film when McQueen’s hybrid of austerity and corporeality—an unlikely collision of Bresson and Cronenberg—reaches its “body horror” martyrdom peak.
But there is also “The Scene.” In a film masterfully constructed with a minimum of dialogue (let alone explicit political didacticism), Hunger breaks its rhythm to allow for a single scene of dialogue between Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), who pleads with Sands to abandon his hunger strike. The entire sequence, driven by nothing but dialogue between the two men (who are virtually silhouetted by backlighting for much of it), runs roughly 23 minutes. Almost 17 of those minutes unfold in a single shot, and one is almost disappointed when McQueen cuts into tighter two-shots of the individual actors before the scene concludes, but it actually further demonstrates the filmmaker’s astute grasp on the material. The conversation begins as a rat-a-tat-tat Mamet-like banter of verbal one-upmanship between the two men, but the exchange is divided within the frame (triggered by another initial physical detail, the close-up of a lit cigarette) at the moment Sands reveals the details of a childhood moment that underlines his philosophy—a moment that fleetingly seems to emotionally unite the two men yet actually isolates them through the extremity of belief. The scene is arguably the only significant passage of traditional narrative and characterization in the entire film, and McQueen makes it never less than riveting.
Mercifully devoid of stirring speeches and a sweeping music score, Hunger is as different from standard political biopic as can be imagined (Soderbergh’s two-part Che looks positively formulaic by comparison), and stands as one of the most uncommonly confident first features in ages.
This is a Criterion Collection release of a 2008 production. What do you think it's going to look and sound like, an old public domain VHS of Night of the Living Dead purchased at a flea market? The 16:9-enhanced 2.35:1 transfer with Dolby 5.1 audio looks and sounds impeccable, with no apparent flaws.
Criterion has packed just as much content on this single disc release as they did on their double-disc release of Revanche, so the difference is probably rooted in the longer running time of the latter film and subsequent necessity for the additional disc. Regardless, the supplementary features on Hunger are very worthwhile, and include video interviews with both McQueen (quite articulate and passionate about his filmmaking, making it more lamentable that there is no director's commentary track accompanying the feature) and Fassbender, as well as a brief making-of video piece that is a bit less glib and disposable than the usual behind-the-scenes fluff featurette. The most notable extra, however, is a 45-minute 1981 episode of BBC's Panorama news program entitled "The Provos' Last Card?" that covers the hunger strikes and the public reaction in Northern Ireland at the time. The (excellent) theatrical trailer and perceptive liner notes by Chris Darke complete the package.
Hunger is one of the first Criterion Collection releases of contemporary international cinema taken from the theatrical distribution division of IFC Films, and—exceptional in all respects—the partnership glimpsed here bodes well for things to come.