Prison film "Hunger" offers little food for thought

Wed May 28, 2008 9:06am EDT
 
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By Ray Bennett

CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen brings the key tenets required to win Britain's top honor for modern art to directing his first film, and so it is trite, grim and feebly provocative.

"Hunger" tells of the last days of Bobby Sands, a Northern Irishman who died in 1981 in Belfast's hellish Maze Prison following a 66-day hunger strike. The film, which opened the Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar, combines scenes more suited to an art installation with static theatrical encounters and cliched flights of artistic fancy.

Violent, bleak and depressing, "Hunger" depicts lifelong Irish Republican Army fighter Sands (Michael Fassbender) as a martyr, and might prosper where audiences already are inclined to that view, with prospects slim elsewhere.

No context is provided beyond the steely but patronizing words of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and there is no mention of the nature of the violent crimes perpetrated by Sands and his fellow inmates. Convicted on charges involving armed attacks and arson, Sands demanded the rights of a prisoner of war, which included wearing civilian clothes and the receipt of gift parcels.

Lacking any new insights on the fateful paradox that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter or that the imposition of punitive measures demeans all parties, the film adds nothing to the debate over broader issues involving such places as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

McQueen and co-scripter Enda Walsh break the film into four uneven parts, with first the introduction of a brutal prison guard (Stuart Graham) and his suburban home life, which is prosaic save for the constant threat of being bombed or shot.

A new prisoner (Brian Milligan) enters the cell of an entrenched convict (Liam McMahon) who teaches him the ways of IRA rebellion, which included smearing the walls with blood and feces, smuggling notes and small items using bodily orifices and bracing for the malevolent treatment of the prison guards.

Attention then moves to Sands, with a 22-minute scene in which he relates his ideals and plans to a weary priest (Liam Cunningham). The remainder of the film, in which Fassbender demonstrates a commitment to the demands of the role beyond the call of duty, shows in great detail the gruesome effect on a man's body of completely rejecting nourishment. It's not a pretty sight.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

 
<p>British director Steve McQueen poses with the Camera d'Or prize for his film "Hunger" at a photocall at the 61st Cannes Film Festival awards ceremony May 25, 2008. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler</p>