mins, rated tba, opening in cinemas 6 November 2008
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
[This is my review as published in the October 2008 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal]
It’s the last part of the 20th century. A country is in a state of
civil unrest. Several factions have been bickering for years about
economic, social, and political inequalities and religious differences.
Unrest turns to rioting and disorder, then violence and murder. People
are killed and wounded, and hundreds of homes are destroyed. Government
troops are deployed to restore order. Paramilitary organizations clash
with government troops. Detention of suspects without trial is
The killing continues, and the bombing campaign by the paramilitary
spreads overseas. Eventually the local government collapses and is
replaced by direct rule from abroad. In a prison set up for “Special
Category” prisoners, inmates protest in various ways, and are regularly
and savagely beaten. They begin a hunger strike.
Sound familiar? Is the country Afghanistan? Iraq? Is the prison Abu
Graib? Guantanamo Bay? No. I am describing the ‘Troubles’ of Northern
Ireland, and the “H-blocks” of Maze Prison during the period 1969 –
1981. This, culminating in the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, is the
subject of an astonishing new film by the artist (not the actor) Steve
This Steve McQueen is a celebrated and accomplished British
contemporary artist. His work has been shown in museums and galleries
around the world, and he’s still in his 30s. He was commissioned by the
Imperial War Museum as an official UK war artist. He worked in Iraq in
2003, on a project to produce a series of postage stamps that bear
portraits of men and women who have died in the conflict, along with
the standard profile of the Queen, in whose name they fought. He
intends that these be issued as real stamps.
Hunger, his first feature
film, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes (best
first feature) and the inaugural Sydney Film Prize at the 2008 Sydney
Film Festival. It is easily the best film I have seen this year. It’s
also the toughest.
It’s tough because of its subject matter, which McQueen presents with
an unflinching eye. He has said:
I want to show what it was like to see,
hear, small and touch H-block
in 1981… something you cannot find in books and archives: the ordinary
and extraordinary of life in this prison. Yet the film is also an
abstraction of what it is to die for a cause.
This, I think, is why the film is so extraordinary. It is pure cinema:
it uses sights, sounds, music, voice-overs, blackouts, extended takes,
set-piece dialogue, flashbacks, dream sequences, and so on, to produce
an impression of H-block and the experience of its inmates. This
impression is so visceral, so extreme, that it is often intensely
uncomfortable. But Hunger is such an amazing and important film that I
felt it my duty not to look away. I have seen the film twice now, and
is it even more impressive on a second viewing.
Relative unknown German-born, Irish-raised actor Michael Fassbender
plays Bobby Sands, who does not appear until the film is almost
half-over. His performance is remarkable – not the least because he had
to fast radically for several months in the middle of the film shoot,
in order to portray Sands ravaged by his 66-day hunger strike.
But it is not just a performance of physical transformation. Central to
the film is a 20-minutes plus, 28-page dialogue between a visiting
priest (Liam Cunningham) and Bobby Sands, in which they argue the
merits of the political struggle and the morality of choosing death as
a means of political protest. Is it suicide or martyrdom? It’s a
stunning sequence, providing a philosophical underpinning to the
physical protest of the prisoners, for whom the body has become the
battleground of last resort.
McQueen uses long takes deftly. He stretches our patience to breaking
point, but never beyond it. His judgement in this is impeccable. Like
Julian Schnabel with The Diving Bell
and the Butterfly (LSJ,
he brings an artist’s sensibility to a seemingly unfilmable human
experience, and produces a masterpiece.