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Hunger (DVD Review)

15 Feb, 2010 By: Mike Clark


Street 2/16/10
Box Office $0.2 million
$39.95 DVD or Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham.

Not unlike the current best picture Oscar nominee Precious, Brit video artist Steve McQueen’s justly acclaimed political prison drama starts with a grim story that sounds like a candidate for monotony and cinematic stasis. The he puts it over with filmmaking ingenuity that would make you want to curtsy were he not dealing with such anti-curtsy material. Here’s a case where a director truly earns the name his parents were brave enough to give him.

This isn’t a movie that anyone from the administration of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (whose voice is heard in ironic radio intonations from time to time) will likely be watching in bed on a laptop. The subject is the 1981 Maze Prison hunger strike masterminded by real-life Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) amid his weakened final days. His goal was to allow himself and his fellow inmates to be recognized as political prisoners instead of common terrorists, which the Thatcher government steadfastly refused to do.

The point of view is generally that of the inmates, which implies that the movie is on their side. It is, but McQueen generally keeps the emotional tone cool; the story even begins with a British prison guard eating a homey breakfast prepared by his wife — before, however, checking under his car for a bomb as he drives to work. It’s a dreadful way to live — though it can’t really compare with the cell living conditions shared by Sands and another, whose wall has an unusual crust of brown. Then, the thought occurs: “My God, is that smeared feces?” Indeed.

For the movie’s opening third, McQueen gets a lot out of crisply edited short scenes. Then, midway in, he pulls off a single-take whopper shot in profile that goes on for 20 minutes. It involves Sands and a tough priest (Cunningham) who visits him in prison — a setpiece full of intellectual cat-and-mouse that never becomes too much. The scene is just one component that makes the movie not just a complete original but also one of the most stirring feature debuts in a while.

In the extras, McQueen recalls how the strike, which he says was vastly underreported by the Brit press, affected him during his youth. Also included are interviews with the cast and writer Enda Walsh and more; the BBC’s 1981 look at the strike; and an essay by critic Chris Darke.

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