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      Hunger Review

      Hunger poster


      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      "Hunger" stars Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army terrorist/martyr who starved himself to death in 1981, at 27, to bring attention to the extraordinarily harsh conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners of the infamous H-Block of the Maze Prison, near Belfast, lived under British authority.

      The focal points, however, are twofold: the prison itself, and the way the first-time feature director, British video artist Steve McQueen, fragments the visual specifics. Both prisoners and officers rattle around within its corridors like ghosts. When McQueen lingers over prison officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) soaking his bloody knuckles in ice-cold water, we imagine how they got that way. Later, we see how.

      It's a strength of this carefully composed, almost obsessively controlled picture that it has no interest in the conventional biographical focus on a subject. Sands emerges from the mosaic of images and events as the central figure, but the film begins as a procedural, following the daily routine of Lohan as he pops off to work in the morning, checking under his car for explosives, while his fearful wife watches from the window.

      The Maze is revealed through the eyes of a new prisoner (Brian Milligan), who joins the so-called "blanket" and "no-wash" protests, intended to bend the will of the Thatcher administration and allow the IRA prisoners to wear street clothes as political prisoners. It's undeniably gripping, and the knot in your stomach tightens. Yet we're a long way from Alan Parker melodramatics. "Hunger" shifts its points of view artfully, as artfully as McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt seek out the perverse beauty amid excrement-stained prison walls and the vicious ballet, depicted partly in slow motion, as the worst of the riots begins. That scene begins with the camera staying close on the face of a terrified young officer, surrounded in a van by the impassive faces of his more experienced fellow officers. Good decision: Immediately it registers as a humanizing amplification of our sympathies, in a film that overall is designed, inevitably, to enrage.

      McQueen's co-writer, playwright Enda Walsh, delivers what is essentially a one-act play for two actors, as Sands meets with a Catholic priest (played by Liam Cunningham, an actor with one of Those Irish Voices, like Liam Neeson's). They parry and thrust and delve into the morality of the proposed hunger strike, the religious and ethical implications of dying for a cause. The scene, like the visual landscape of "Hunger," has its showboating side. But it works; you listen to the arguments, and then, in the final section, at uncomfortably close proximity, witness the outcome.

      No MPAA rating (violence and language).

      Running time: 1:36.

      Starring: Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands); Liam Cunningham (Father Moran); Stuart Graham (Raymond Lohan); Brian Milligan (Davey Gillen).

      Directed by Steve McQueen, co-written by Enda Walsh, McQueen; produced by Laura Hastings-Smith and Robin Gutch. An IFC Films release.

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