Hunger a modern passion play

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      Starring Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham. Rated 14A. Opens Friday. April 17, at the Cinemark Tinseltown

      Like Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen (no relation to the late Hollywood heartthrob) is a successful artist who decided to make movies fairly late in his career.

      Watch the trailer for Hunger.

      Hunger, his first feature (which won the Camera d’or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival), deals with Bobby Sands and the 1981 IRA prison hunger strike. McQueen’s “canvas”, however, is far darker than the one painted by Terry George in Some Mother’s Son. While the story remains the same (Republican militants threaten to starve themselves to death in Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze Prison unless Maggie Thatcher’s Tory government starts treating them like prisoners of war), the emphasis could not be more different. There’s nothing middle-of-the-road or humanistic about this picture. It is unrelenting all the way.

      Hunger’s relationship to a medieval passion play has often been noted. The so-called dirty protest (IRA members refused to bathe or shave, smearing the walls of their own cells with shit and walking around naked under blankets to emphasize their rejection of their penal regime) leads to a savage crackdown that looks more like something you’d see in 21st century Abu Ghraib than 1980s Belfast. Then there’s a long, intense conversation between Sands and a sympathetic Catholic priest in which the former (played by Michael Fassbender, whose on-screen weight loss easily outagonizes any similar metabolic flip-flops undertaken by Christian Bale and Robert De Niro) doesn’t yield an inch, Finally, there’s the fasting unto death.

      Many of the points that McQueen makes are highly controversial (such as the implication that the prison warders who were assassinated by Irish nationalists weren’t just chosen at random but singled out for their exceptional savagery). But then that’s the kind of thing McQueen does: take risks.

      That’s what makes Hunger so interesting.