Criterion Sunday 504: Hunger (2008)

The subject of this film is undeniably tough, like Steve McQueen’s later film about American slavery (12 Years a Slave), and one that I had put off viewing for some time. I remember watching Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls a few years ago (about Mao-era Chinese re-education camps) and one of the most striking and upsetting things was the extensive descriptions of what happens to the human body when it’s starved. Here instead we get a visual depiction, and though McQueen leaves much of it to the last 15-20 minutes, it’s still impossible not to reckon with the image of Fassbender’s body, not unlike that of the slaves in the later film, even if their situations are obviously different. Bodies remain a focus throughout, and wounds, like those on the knuckles of the prison guard that start the film, making us wonder how they were sustained (and pretty quickly we find out). Quite aside from his knuckles, that guard’s fate makes it clear that nobody really benefits from these struggles. That said, McQueen is fairly circumspect with the politics: the points it makes are largely visceral ones, and Bobby Sands’s place in re-energising nationalist republican politics isn’t explicitly confronted, though the centrepiece of the film is a bravura single-shot dialogue he has with a partisan priest (Liam Cunningham) shortly before starting his hunger strike, in which he sets out his philosophical basis for the action. (I didn’t learn from the film, for example, that Sands had been elected an MP in the UK Parliament while he was striking, nor about the specific demands that led to the end of the strike, after 10 men had died.) After all, you don’t need to have characters speaking about the brutality of British rule when it is enough to see the conditions of the prison and their struggles to retain some dignity. So ultimately, for all my fears about the film, it walks a line between the visceral evocation of horror and a visual artist’s eye for semi-abstraction in the compositions; this is McQueen’s debut, but it merely begins a new phase in his artistic work after many years at the forefront of gallery-based visual arts.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve McQueen; Writers Enda Walsh and McQueen; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

Shooting for Socrates (2014)

There’s not a great deal I can say about this film except that it’s a sweet-hearted (PG-rated!) take on a small moment in Northern Ireland’s sporting history, namely their advancement to the football World Cup finals in Mexico 1986, and their match against the world famous Brazilian team. (This team is led by the hirsute doctor of the film’s title, and namesake of a famous Greek philosopher, as is mentioned once or twice.) I was not quite 10 years old when this took place, but being Scottish I had my own set of sporting disappointments to deal with, and not against Brazil. There’s a kid about that age here, too, and the film uses the experience of him and his family as a window into the way the country reacted to their team’s achievement, against the backdrop of the Troubles and ever-present sectarian divisions. Alongside the domestic story is that of the team, coached by Billy Bingham (John Hannah) and followed by a TV news crew dominated by the preening Jackie (Conleth Hill), who rather steals the scenes he’s in. Aside from showing Billy indulging in a bit of low-level corruption, not to mention the familiar tanks and soldiers on the streets of Belfast, the film sticks to a good-natured tone, keeping things ticking along by cutting between the different storylines, and it never outstays its welcome.

Shooting for Socrates film poster CREDITS
Director James Erskine; Writers Erskine and Marie Jones; Cinematographer Joel Devlin; Starring John Hannah, Conleth Hill; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Tuesday 9 June 2015.

“BAFTA Shorts 2015”

I fear my post about this collection of BAFTA-nominated short films will be shorter than the list of credits below, but it was granted an official release to British cinemas so it falls under the ambit of my New Year’s resolution film-watching project. Needless to say, as with any such compilation, there are highs and lows, but the wonder of the short film form is that even if you get bored, there’s something else up in fairly short order.

Out of the eight short films featured in this compilation, the highlight of the set is probably The Kármán Line and not just because it stars the always delightful and watchable Olivia Colman. It starts out as a rather whimsical tale of a woman who, pottering about at home with her stroppy teenage daughter one day, just spontaneously starts slowly floating upwards, as if caught in an invisible tractor beam. However, it quickly develops into a really very affecting story about death, loss and grieving, as the ramifications of the mother’s new situation slowly dawn on everyone.

Many of the other films also grapple with family sadness. Of the animations, The Bigger Picture is probably the most interesting, with its odd mixed-media painted aesthetic, and story of two brothers coping with their mother’s dying, while My Dad is a garishly-coloured portrait of an affectionate yet problematically racist father. Emotional Fusebox, meanwhile, is a gorgeously filmed and well-acted, if somewhat slight, story of a young woman uneasily pushed by her family towards romance, as we slowly gather why she’s living in the shed at home (the director has since expanded it as Adult Life Skills). The longest film is Slap, a coming-of-age story about a young man with a confused sexual identity, which follows some fairly familiar paths, as does Boogaloo and Graham, though its story of two young Belfast kids looking after some baby chickens during the Troubles has a refreshing sense of place and some fine child acting. The low-key but appealing domestic drama Three Brothers and oddball space-era Scottish animation Monkey Love Experiments round the programme out.

All the films are BAFTA-nominated for a reason, and show plenty of promise for their assembled casts and crews, so I look forward to some of them making the leap to feature filmmaking. Then again, as this programme reminds me, the short film has its own particular pleasures.

BAFTA Shorts 2015 film posterCREDITS
Emotional Fusebox (2014) (dir./wr. Rachel Tunnard, 14 minutes); My Dad (2014) (dir./wr. Marcus Armitage, 6 minutes); Slap (2014) (dir. Nick Rowland, wr. Islay Bell-Webb and Rowland, 25 minutes); Three Brothers (2014) (dir./wr. Aleem Khan, 17 minutes); The Bigger Picture (2014) (dir. Daisy Jacobs, wr. Jacobs and Jennifer Majka, 8 minutes); The Kármán Line (2014) (dir. Oscar Sharp, wr. Dawn King and Sharp, 24 minutes); Monkey Love Experiments (2014) (dir./wr. Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson, 9 minutes); Boogaloo and Graham (2014) (dir. Michael Lennox, wr. Ronan Blaney, 14 minutes).
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 12 March 2015.