Posted by: sulya | 2 November 2009



*** WARNING: This is criticism as well as a review and this film is about a well-documented historical event so some of my commentary may appear to be somewhat SPOILER’ISH ***

This film – about the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike – is impressive.  It is divided into three clear acts, it is very visual and cinematic and yet also seems to do a great many things that conventional narrative filmmaking would say not to do.  Mostly, it does what it does in such a way that it has critics almost exclusively singing its praises.

The first act is nearly without dialogue and depicts the justifiably paranoid life of a particular prison guard and for the IRA prisoners seeking to be called political prisoners instead of terrorists whom he guards: brutal and moving.  Hard to watch given the first part of the prisoner’s protest was “dirty” in that they refused to wash or bathe and smeared excrement all over their prison walls.  The disgust one feels about the treatment of the prisoners, about the squalor and filth, is balanced by the smallest moments of stillness, the tiniest intrusions of nature and by unexpected human compassion.

The next act is one conversation between a particular prisoner and a priest: fast dialogue, emotional with a particular monologue that is destined to make its way into acting classrooms across the English speaking world.

The last act is an intimate, fluid, disturbingly gentle and quiet – barring some very effective, even lyrical, use of sound design – portrayal of the eponymous “Hunger” as it takes the life of IRA volunteer/leader Bobby Sands.  This act is so elegant that an entire scene finds its motivation in one, small tattoo.

The cinematography is steeped in classic rules of composition.  Iconic with exquisite use of light, shadow and it is – to an image (even of excrement in a way that boggles) – beautiful.   In strange ways it made me think about Jean-Luc Goddard, somehow, and also of early Hal Hartley.

The second act “conversation,” is punchy, evocative – even funny – and performed in a near-perfect rhythm and dance by actors Michael Fassbender & Rory Mullen.  It veritably savages the stereotypical tradition of going from a wide establishing angle to medium/close-ups and then into shot/reverse-shot that makes up the vast majority of scenes that depict two people talking in contemporary narrative filmmaking and TV.  The scene is no less than 20 minutes long and shot with, if memory serves, only about five or six cuts with the vast majority of it shown from a static wide angle; cigarette smoke becomes the only truly mobile player.

The film is lingering and sad and by keeping us almost exclusively in the claustrophobic, repressive, violent, covert and dangerous world of the prisoners and their custodians, does serve to tell this piece of history with power, dignity and pathos.  It’s worth seeing and I don’t think I have ruined any of the art or historical poignancy by drawing attention to the structure and storytelling choices of its creators, Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen.

If I have a complaint of any kind, it’s that I don’t usually notice this much about the structure of a film the first time I see it unless it is not truly holding me; unless it is not making me forget that I am watching a movie, not making me forget that I am in my living-room or a cinema.  I was periodically moved by things in the film.  I was suitably outraged by things in the film.  But all feelings were muted, felt neutralized by something almost clinical in the film’s style.  It’s as though some of the filmmaking choices were not made to serve the storytelling but in a reactionary way to flout the conventions of mainstream narrative cinema.

Reactionary choices in narrative film storytelling, in particular, are always alienating to me as a viewer because they are often made to serve an artist’s ideology more than to serve the needs of the story itself.  Unless it is the artist’s own story or it is a story that is, somehow, about filmmaking itself, these sorts of choices usually mean that the artist’s need to comment – through cinematographic and structural choices – about the act of filmmaking winds up in conflict with the story he or she is trying to tell and something, in my opinion, is always lost this way.

I will also admit that after four years in film school and too much general life exposure to artists so bent on ‘being different’ that their so-called differences all end up falling into the same category, I am extra sensitive and have my own ‘re’action to this particular phenomenon.  I might, in short, be seeing it where it is not in any way intended to be.

Alternatively,  given how much of the world took notice as Bobby Sands starved to death the film is, in fact, about the power of media and battles fought in the media which take real human lives.  In this vein, toying with the medium in deliberate ways while making this film might well be a very strong, well-grounded choice.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter one way or another, though.

Perhaps the only thing that matters is that, as I said, Hunger is a lingering and beautiful film and that it’s been three days since I saw it and I am still thinking about it, still writing about it.  I am also, as it happens, seeing moments from it in my mind and – even if it didn’t happen as I was watching the film – momentarily forgetting where I am.


Poster Image Borrowed from HERE


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