'Hunger' reps a powerful, pertinent but not entirely perfect debut for British visual-artist-turned-feature-helmer Steve McQueen.

The last months in the life of Irish Republican Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in 1981 as a protest against the British government’s intransigence over recognizing convicted IRA members as political prisoners, is harrowingly recounted in “Hunger.” Pic reps a powerful, pertinent but not entirely perfect debut for British visual-artist-turned-feature-helmer Steve McQueen, who demonstrates a painterly touch with composition and real cinematic flair, but who stumbles in film’s last furlough with trite symbolism. Pic’s slow pace and uncompromising physicality may choke off some auds, but “Hunger” should pull in arthouse auds in moderate numbers domestically and travel offshore.

Only a few years ago, the mere notion of depicting Sands’ self-imposed “martyrdom” would have reaped a furious whirlwind of controversy in Blighty, not least from the late critic Alexander Walker, a passionate Loyalist who would probably have denounced the film roundly in the pages of his newspaper outlet, London’s Evening Standard, and no doubt have made a considerable public fuss at any Cannes press conference about the film.

Today, in the context of a relatively peaceable Northern Ireland, “Hunger” looks more or less like just another historical drama, albeit one with deep resonance for contempo auds, given the treatment of prisoners in conflicts offshore. However, McQueen doesn’t shirk the political and moral complexities of Sands’ stance, which get a through grilling here in a protracted dialogue between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham), who questions the utility of his proposed hunger strike.

McQueen, working with a script co-credited to himself and playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh (“Disco Pigs”), strips the action down to bare, extruding bones. Pic’s first few reels focus not on Sands, but on two other convicts dwelling in Belfast’s Maze prison’s notorious “H” block where IRA prisoners were kept. In a barren cell whose walls are smeared (rather artistically, one might note) with excrement, newly arrived inmate Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) and already resident Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) take part in a “blanket protest,” refusing to wear prison-issue clothing because its imposition represents the government and the penal system’s refusal to recognize them as political prisoners. They devise ingenious methods of secreting messages — written on cigarette papers — within assorted bodily orifices to be smuggled in and out via visitors. The prison guards react with increasing violence.

Meanwhile, pic’s first half also tracks movements of guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), whose everyday routine involves checking under his car for bombs and lives in constant, justified fear of assassination.

While Lohan’s storyline comes to a particular conclusion, those of Gillen and Campbell are summarily dropped halfway through the film as the focus shifts on to Bobby Sands himself. Film is effectively structured like a triptych, with the peripheral characters on one side, Sands’ slow decline from starvation on the other, and one key scene in the middle in which Sands and the priest battle it out over ethics, a roughly 10-minute sequence that unfolds in just two camera set-ups.

For all the power in this central scene, which features bravura work from Cunningham and Fassbender (excellent throughout, and whose turn as a hunger artist ranks with Christian Bale’s perf in “The Machinist”), the stasis of the visuals means it plays like a piece of legit plonked in the middle of the movie. Scene sports the vast bulk of the movie’s dialogue, as elsewhere words are barely spoken. Non-source music only emerges at the end, yet sound –especially drumming noises from various sources — plays a crucial and atmospheric role throughout.

McQueen, working with lenser Sean Bobbitt in luscious widescreen, crafts some beautiful and haunting images that evoke the work of other visual artists like Francis Bacon (specifically a shot of bloodied Sands, to the extreme right of the frame, rolling over on a grey, scuffed surface) and achieve moments of visual poetry. However, film’s protracted pace and use of long-held shots that seem to go on for minutes (such as of a guard cleaning up urine in the hallway) are redolent of video art in galleries, the field where McQueen made his name, and may test some auds’ patience.

McQueen really overeggs the pudding is in the final reel, where (and this is no spoiler for anyone glancingly versed in Sands’ story) the protagonist wastes away, the camera focusing intimately on his bedsores and emaciated frame. Tawdry, cliched images include Sands’ vision of himself as a child sitting in the room, topped by a near final image of a flock of birds — free at last! — that seemingly symbolizes his soul’s last flight. It’s a disappointing last gasp for a film that otherwise demonstrates confidence, guts and the abundant promise of its helmer.

Hunger

U.K.

Production

A Blast! Films production for Film4/Channel 4, in association with Northern Ireland Screen, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, the Wales Creative IP Fund. (International sales: Icon Entertainment Intl., Santa Monica.) Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith, Robin Gutch. Executive producers, Jan Younghusband, Peter Carlton, Linda James, Edmund Coulthard, Iain Canning. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay, Enda Walsh, McQueen.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Sean Bobbitt; editor, Joe Walker, music, David Holmes, Leo Abrahams; production designer, Tom McCullagh; costume designer, Anushia Nieradzik; sound mixers (Dolby Digital), Ronan Hill, Mervyn Moore; sound designer, Paul Davies. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard -- opener), May 15, 2008. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon.

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