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Hunger (2008)

Drama Rated NR

It’s clear, very early on, we’re not in the hands of a “narrative” filmmaker. Indeed, first-time feature director Steve McQueen comes from an experimental film background, and he brings that formalistic aesthetic to bear on a story that in other, more melodramatic hands could have led to Oscar grandstanding. Hunger details the 1981 prison strikes staged by captive Irish republicans, including a calculated fast in which 10 inmates sacrificed their lives. McQueen captures this in largely static images that are simultaneously harsh and gentle; an early shot of a tiny snowflake melting on bloodied knuckles could serve as the movie’s logo. As we’re immersed in the cruelty that dominates the prison, the camera never looks away. Instead, it seems to seek out vulnerability: the prisoners’ nudity, especially, and the sores and wounds they suffer. There is a touch of sadomasochism to the picture, perhaps because McQueen’s camera brings a certain elegance to the dehumanization on display. It’s disturbing, but then again, a movie on this chapter in British history should be. With a breakout performance by Michael Fassbender as the leader of the strikers. (All the press was about his emaciated physical transformation, but a long, barely edited dialogue scene with a visiting priest is the real astonishment.)