Directed by Steve McQueen
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 96 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: February 16, 2010
Review Date: February 13, 2010
The irresistible force versus the immovable object standoff between the Northern Ireland IRA and the British Parliament is played out in harrowing terms in Steve’s McQueen’s compelling Hunger. Beginning as a broad-based look at the combative relationship between IRA prisoners and prison officials and later narrowing its focus for a look at IRA martyr Bobby Sands, Hunger is visceral in the best sense. Even those with only minimal knowledge of the long, bitter battle between the Northern Irish and the British will be drawn into these hotbed issues as the political ideologies take on human dimensions in the hands of this gifted cast and director.
With their designations as political prisoners taken away by the Thatcher régime in Britain, the IRA prisoners in the infamous Maze prison in Belfast stage a series of protests against the elimination of their rights as politicos. Refusing to wear prison-approved clothing (they wanted to wear their own clothes as political prisoners were allowed to do), they instead wear only blankets, refuse to bathe, and make the “H” cellblock a virtual cesspool of urine and excrement. When these measures fail to bring about the changes they demand, activist Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) begins a 66-day hunger strike which he hopes will bring the government to the realization that the activists are willing to die for their cause in the name of political freedom and mutual respect.
It’s to the credit of director/co-writer Steve McQueen and writer Enda Walsh that sides are never taken in this depiction of one of the seminal events in the fiery confrontation between the IRA on one side and the British officials (and their agents such as the police and prison officials) on the other. We follow prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) as he goes through a typical day (which includes checking his car for bombs before he turns on the ignition and soothing his battered knuckles in cold water after beating recalcitrant prisoners senseless) and see newly arrested prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) getting indoctrinated into prison life by his fellow IRA cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) which involves smearing his own feces on the walls instead of leaving it in a bucket, accumulating food scraps and fat in the corner to attract flies and grow their own colony of maggots, and systematically dumping containers of urine under the cell doors on cue to create a virtual urine river in the prison hallway. About a third of the way into the movie, the focus turns squarely to renowned IRA militant and elected official Bobby Sands who has a coruscating conversation with a concerned priest (Liam Cunningham) over his intentions to starve himself to death which director McQueen films statically so to better concentrate on what’s being said, and then we watch the entire excruciating process as his body begins to rebel against the treatment (close-ups of bedsores in chilling detail and a circling overhead camera to give some welcome movement to the sedentary Sands). It’s not pretty, but it’s to the director’s credit that he doesn’t flinch at any moment in the film from showing the absurd lengths these sides will go to in order to stand their ground (a lengthy sequence as a riot squad storms the cellblock is among the most disturbing in the film and very effectively staged making full use of the widescreen frame to show the brutality and humanity going on simultaneously).
Words can’t really do justice to the phenomenal work of Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands. Whether defiantly stating his case or suffering the agonies of starvation in pitiful, squirm-inducing silence, the actor’s commitment to the role is paramount. Equally effective in smaller roles are Liam Cunningham as Father Moran who unsuccessfully tries to talk some sense into Sands and Stuart Graham’s nearly wordless but tremendously effective work as the guard fearful for his life and the well being of his family. In a film in which actions speak far louder than words, director McQueen has rounded up a highly proficient cast, and they blossom under his expert guidance.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in an impressive 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The images may not be pretty, but they’re sharp and graphically real with textures on walls and details on skin and clothes well defined. Flesh tones are realistic, and color fidelity overall is nicely delivered. Black levels are superb. Of all of the color films brought to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in recent months, this one is the most impressive of the lot, a startlingly clear and precise image loaded with detail but never artificially sharpened or with contrast laid on too thickly. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack makes excellent use of the front soundstage and puts appropriate sounds in the rear channels when they would be most effective, especially during the riot squad sequence and even in one of the opening scenes of protesters rattling their dishes on the floor in a show of outrage. It’s not a showy sound mix but it’s spare and amazingly impressive.
Director Steve McQueen is interviewed in 2009 for 18 minutes discussing the 3 ½ weeks of shooting (split by a hiatus so that Fassbender could lose weight for the hunger strike sequences) and his approach to a political film in non-political terms. It’s in 1080p.
“The Making of Hunger” is a 13 ½-minute documentary which features interviews with director Steve McQueen, writer Enda Walsh, producer Robin Gutch, and stars Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, and Brian Milligan about their experiences on the production. It’s presented in 1080i.
Star Michael Fassbender is interviewed by Jason Solomous in 2008 discussing the diet regime he underwent, the pressure of playing such a famous person, and his preparation for the 22-page/10-minute face-off with Liam Cunningham which is one of the highlights of the movie. It’s in 1080i.
“The Provo’s Last Card” is a 1981 BBC news special on the events of the hunger strikes of 1981 which left ten men dead and an IRA movement newly rejuvenated. Presented in 4:3 and 1080i, it runs for 45 minutes. For those unschooled on the Northern Ireland/British government standoff, this program, especially the first fifteen minutes or so, makes for excellent background before beginning the movie.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 1 ½ minutes and is presented in 1080p.
The enclosed 15-page booklet contains complete cast and crew lists, some telling color stills from the movie, and a combination overview of director Steve McQueen’s career and an appreciation of the movie by film critic Chris Darke.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Steve McQueen’s Hunger is an emotionally haunting and gut-wrenching examination of the impotence of uncompromising behavior. The Criterion Blu-ray release features exemplary picture and sound along with some helpful bonus material presenting both information about the political background of the movie and the making of this landmark film. Highly recommended!