Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Steve McQueen - Hunger, Shame & 12 Years a Slave

So you want to read about three light hearted, fun and not serious at all, films? 

I thought not! How about three Michael Fassbender films then?

And three of the best films of the past six years?
Well, read on my faithful few!

I consider myself fortunate to see "Hunger" very near to it's opening release and I've followed the cinematic career of Steve McQueen ever since. I love "Shame" with such reverence that I ought not to expand on here and "12 Years a Slave" was rightly lauded with Oscars galore this year. 

In a film career spanning 21 years Steve has released umpteen short films and three modern classic cinematic films in the last six years. All have been funded or part funded by Film 4 or British institutions and we should be justly proud of his achievements. Steve also co-wrote both Hunger and Shame.

It is not my intention to provide huge spoilers for the coming films but rather my purpose is to give a flavour for the films as I do not want to spoil these for you in any way. Moreover, my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations.

I've also tried to write these reviews in a fresh and different way each time where possible, by specialising on particular scenes and/or the lead characters, thereby negating the need for spoilers or a detailed narrative account of the film. As always, I've sincerely written these reviews from a perspective of a genuine and sincere fan.

Hunger (2008)

"2,187 people have been killed in 'The Troubles' since 1969"
"The British Government has withdrawn the political status of all paramilitary prisoners"
"Irish Republicans in the Maze Prison are on a 'Blanket' and 'No Wash' protest"

Six years have passed since I watched this harrowing, difficult to watch and difficult to comprehend first film from Steve McQueen and several re-watching's of his debut film later still leave me heartbroken and in utter dismay as the closing credits roll. To say this is a tough film to watch is an understatement and it's similarly not a film for everyone, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum. It's mournful, acutely distressing, disturbing and regardless of how many times I've watched this film the grim reality of the real life events it depicts puts me on edge every single time. It's the mark of a fantastic cinematic experience and the mark of a feature debut film that should be regarded as a modern classic, and one that remains a harrowing watch time after time. That the events the film depicts happened just 33 short years ago remains a stain on the British consciousness and along with Bloody Sunday another deeply depressing low in the Northern Ireland "troubles" as they were constantly referred to as such. For what's it's worth, I'm a political atheist and not a student of history but I consider myself a well read and well informed human being. It strikes me every time I watch this melancholic masterpiece that if prisoners are treated so inhumanely and have to resort to wearing just a blanket, living in their own filthy excrement and beaten savagely to near the point of death for doing so, maybe the system they're living under doesn't work any more?

Thankfully times have changed, however it could be argued that this film shines a light on today's treatment of political prisoners too. The violent, bloody and brutal treatment depicted here have been replaced by psychological torture, of rendition, water boarding and constant interrogation, and of 24 hours a day strobe lighting, orange jumpsuits and Barney the Dinosaur rendering the prisoners unable to think or act straight. Is either method a success? Is either method humane to our fellow man? Is this the sum total of our efforts after millions of years of evolution? Steve McQueen's astonishing debut film shines a light on all this and so much more.

Supported by Film 4, Channel 4, Northern Ireland Screen and Broadcast Commission and the Wales Creative IP Fund, the screenplay was also written by first time Director McQueen and Enda Walsh. The film depicts the grotesque and grim reality of life inside Northern Ireland's notorious and infamous Maze Prison in 1981 which housed Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners who, without recognition of political status and under the orders of their leadership are on a "blanket" and "no wash" protest. This is starkly shown in two of the film's earliest scenes as "Davey Gillen" (Brian Milligan) enters an excrement ridden cell and as the camera slowly pans around the small cell it is entirely covered in faeces from his fellow cell inmate "Gerry Campbell" (Liam McMahon). The second scene starkly depicts the prison authorities response to the no wash protest as they drag a kicking and screaming "Bobby Sands" (Michael Fassbender) through the prison corridors and into the bathroom, savagely beating him as they do so. They forcibly remove his hair and beard before unceremoniously dumping him into a bathtub and scrub him vigorously with a yard brush. Both these scenes are grimly realised and particularly difficult to watch. The film has a sum total of just nineteen main characters and the Prison Authorities are portrayed through the eyes and actions of two characters, one a frightened young riot police officer crying uncontrollably behind a wall during a particularly savage beating but it's "Raymond Lohan" (Stuart Graham) who takes centre stage and it's through him that we see the film's obvious juxtapositions that permeate the film. Against the backdrop of bloodied and bruised naked prisoners he is, on the surface at least, calm and methodical as he enjoys a pleasant breakfast at home and dressing immaculately in his pristine prison uniform. But he too is tortured by the brutal beatings and the insanity that surrounds him at his place of work and ever watchful as he checks under his car for any attached bombs that may have been placed there. It is a still and almost wordless performance of poise and reflection from Graham and perfectly encapsulated as he washes the blood from his bruised knuckles, the blood from the prisoner he has just beaten. Whilst their respective lives couldn't be any more different or extreme, the lives of Bobby Sands and Raymond Lohan are starkly juxtaposed against each other with both following the orders of their respective leaders but both deeply unhappy and resentful of their predicaments. Fassbender and Graham deserve immense credit for their magnificent yet tortured performances and six years hence Graham has continued to work in a multitude of Irish films as well as starring in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011 whilst Michael Fassbender has rightly soared into the Hollywood stratosphere with career defining roles in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards, re-teaming with Director McQueen in the fantastic Shame and 12 Years a Slave (see below) as well as Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

With so few characters and indeed very little dialogue, further supporting roles of note fall to Helen Madden as Bobby's Mother "Mrs Sands" and Des McAleer as his Father "Mr Sands" and a heartbreaking wordless performance from B J Hogg as "Loyalist Orderly" but the stand out supporting role comes from the wonderful Liam Cunningham in his role as "Father Dominic Moran". The Republican Father and Bobby share a seventeen minute, one camera, eponymous scene that will surely in the fullness of time come to be regarded as one of the greatest single dramatic scenes in cinema history. One camera, dialogue heavy and two actors putting in iconic performances that are so separate from the film's grim reality yet complimenting it perfectly too. I hope I do this scene a modicum of justice with the following brief appraisal:

The scene opens with Bobby sitting alone at the table, naked apart from prison issue trousers. Off camera, Father Dominic enters the room and they exchange pleasantries which continue after the Father joins him at the table and they share the Father's cigarettes. Both men are smiling and clearly pleased to see each other and to be having a human and refreshing conversation. Bobby dominates the conversation yet clearly wishes to hear the Father's recent exploits in the outside world and of his family and background in Northern Ireland. The Father is still pursuing the "business of the soul" which amuses them both as they share his cigarettes and The Father retorts it's "better than smoking the bible!" The Father questions Bobby as to why he called the meeting. Bobby is reluctant at first to discuss this and also brushes away the questions of who gave him his facial bruises and who beat him. They both discuss talk of negotiations and the orders from the upper levels of the IRA leadership.

"We're starting a hunger strike on 1st March. That's why you're here. That's what I'm telling you".
Throughout their light hearted discussions so far both men have been self effacing and able to ridicule their religion and the bible, but as the Father presses Bobby more he becomes more and more indignant at the futility of the negotiations and the constant lack of real progress. His tone is rising to which The Father replies that he's a "Leader of Men" and he questions where Bobby gets his vast energy from. The tension breaks as Bobby half smiles and confirms he was a cross country runner as a boy before reiterating his frustrations again and despite the first hunger strike failing this time it will be different. 75 committed men will take part, each starting two weeks apart. The Father shows his first sign of anger at Bobby's statement and at the impact this will have on the other men's families and angrily asks him "why should you care as you're dead, right?". Bobby replies indignantly again that negotiations have failed and they need to act like soldiers in a war who are prepared to die for their cause.

"You say you're soldiers? It's all about freedom, but you have no appreciation of a life Bobby. You no longer know what a life is, you men"
The Father's anger is growing yet he calmly chides Bobby that being locked up 24/7 is impairing his decision, he can't think straight and he can't put the lives of the men at risk in this way. He may be a freedom fighter but he's needed in the outside world, working and negotiating for the cause as he did before. He beseeches Bobby to stop the planned action but he refuses, accusing The Father of simply seeing the issue as a matter of theology and not "real life" and of using "sentiment" as a tool against him. The Father, his voice rising in anger now accuses Bobby of using him as a sounding board for his ideas, with Bobby retorting with a half smile and in a mocking fashion "Aye, business of the soul". For the first time in the entire seventeen minute scene the camera changes angle, a close up of Bobby taking another of The Father's cigarettes and as he light's the cigarette the camera pans in to a close up of Bobby as he relaxes and shares the story of his cross country running in Derry as a 12 year old boy he alluded to earlier. After concluding the story, he fixes The Father with a final stare.

"I'm clear on the reasons, Dom. I'm clear of all the repercussions. But I will act, and I will not stand by and do nothing".

"I don't think I'm going to see you again Bobby".

"There's no need Dom"

Despite the subject matter and being an especially difficult watch, Hunger should be lauded as an incredible debut achievement from Steve McQueen. With minimal dialogue he allows the roaming camera to tell his story for him and of course three remarkable character portrayals from Fassbender, Graham and Cunningham. McQueen also cleverly uses stock radio and TV interviews of the day, unseen and in the background as a semi narration, with an especially poignant use of an address to The Houses of Parliament by Margaret Thatcher. There is also clever use of a minimal musical score which sounds like a fiddle, mournful and foreboding and eerily reminiscent of a prison bell tolling in the background as it builds further tension and adding further layers to a remarkable film and the telling of a story that to this day remains a dark stain on the British psyche. A phenomenal film.

Shame (2011)

"I just don't understand why people would want to get married"

(Michael Fassbender) We first meet Brandon on a New York subway train as he smiles and flirts playfully with a woman sitting further along the carriage and we depart from Brandon at the end of film as he looks at the same woman but on a different train and on a different day, this time without reciprocating her smile or her playfulness. Circle of life? Maybe. Doomed to constantly repeat the same actions time and again out of an in built circle of obsession, compulsion, addiction and personality disorders? For Brandon, probably yes.

For me, this was/is a career defining performance from Fassbender as he characterises Brandon with such inner turmoil over his foibles and obsessions that I was crying long before he collapsed into an angry and rage filled weeping mess in the film's final Act. He would go on to star in McQueen's Oscar filled epic 12 Years a Slave (see below) in his third collaboration with the Director, adding to his already tortured performance as Bobby Sands in Hunger (above). McQueen certainly enjoys putting his star man through the performance wringer! But it's here that Fassbender provides a portrayal of such raw intensity and emotion as he displays a character so tortured and unlikeable yet you can't take your eyes away from the screen. Brandon is a successful, affluent and articulate New York Sales Executive who works for his low brow, almost mirror image boss "David" (James Badge Dale) and to the outside world he appears to be content with life who enjoys work and a party lifestyle outside of the office. Yet underneath his laconic and purposeful exterior lay many secrets and none more so than his obsession and addiction to sex. He frequently masturbates (the office toilet cubicle isn't even out of bounds) is habitually attached to his laptop and office computer for the purposes of constant pornography and his obsessions drive him to seek out any possible casual sex he can find, including prostitution. His addiction is driving him further and further away from day to day reality and he's particularly remote from any friends and work colleagues as his selfish desires for instant gratification make building new friendships or relationships impossible. This is starkly evident and encapsulated in his relationships with women as a whole, especially with his sister "Sissy" (Carey Mulligan) and would be girlfriend "Marianne" (Nicole Beharie) and these relationships provide two of the film's many pivotal scenes.

Sissy is a Jazz Club singer whose beautifully poignant and melancholic rendition of "New York New York" moves her usually stoical brother to tears and the brief scene is perfectly captured by Director McQueen. The camera at first focuses on Brandon and David sipping cocktails but is quickly cut to Sissy in a close up for the duration of the song before returning to Brandon (his Boss David is no longer important) and focusing on his tearful response to his sister's sublime yet mournful performance. Wiping away a tear and leaving the table to get more drinks for everyone, he ignores David's chiding of him for having a "tear in his eye". Later we find Brandon killing time before a date with Marianne and despite arriving deliberately late he is cold towards her as his actions highlight more of his disconnected psyche. He's late and a little nervous but equally awkward at the social etiquette of dining and getting to know someone intimately and bemused at both an overly fussy waiter and Marianne's innocent questions. Brandon needs instant gratification, not discussions of food and wine and of Marianne's smiling questions on love and relationships. Her eager questions are dismissed in a deadpan manner but cheerfully she continues "What's your longest relationship?". "Four months" is his monotone reply. "To commit you have to give it a shot" she replies. "I did!" he laughs "For four months!".

Brandon is a sex addict unable to control his bubbling obsessions and inner demons, who likes to silently observe before grasping for instant gratification and selfish fulfillment. He's a lonely and disconnected outsider in a busy world who's bemused that others don't share or participate in his obsessions and Michael Fassbender portrays him in a performance of a lifetime.

Within Brandon's world is his sleazy and opportunistic boss David and thoughtful, kind and would be girlfriend Marianne but it's Carey Mulligan's portrayal of his unhinged and manic depressive sister Sissy who may break your heart. It is yet another magnificent character portrayal from Mulligan who would go on to star in Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" in the same year as Shame before starring in the Coen Brothers magnificent "Inside Llewyn Davis" two years later.

Shame is another Steve McQueen film that clearly isn't for everyone! However, this Film 4, UK Film Council and Lottery funded masterpiece has so much to be admired, from the Director's deliberately slow moving camera which captures Brandon's thought processes brilliantly through to returning Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt's capture of the numerous reflections following Brandon throughout the film. Whether in his apartment, hotel, office or on the subway they are always there to capture and mirror his tortured unease at the addictions and obsessions that follow him at every turn.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

"I promise you upon my liberation, I will have satisfaction for this wrong"

A simple opening title slide confirms "This film is based on a true story" and what a true story it is. Based on Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir of the same name, the film garnered awards spanning the globe in 2013/14 and 9 Oscar nominations, winning in 3 categories for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley) and a thoroughly deserved Best Supporting Actress award for Lupita Nyong'o. Solomon Northup was a free man, a hard working man, educated, articulate and living with his wife and young family in Saratoga New York. An accomplished violinist and fiddle player, he is offered two well paid weeks in Washington but whilst there is tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery, consequently spending the next twelve years of his life as a slave on various plantations and at the whim of his "Masters".

Previously well known for his roles in American Gangster, Children of Men and Inside Man, Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays "Solomon Northup" in a staggering performance that fully merited his Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. We see the film and utter grotesqueness of slavery through Solomon's eyes throughout the film and Ejiofor's performance is astounding. Solomon (he is also known as his slave name of "Platt") is repeatedly told to act like any other "nigger" (the word is used repeatedly and liberally throughout the film) and not to divulge that he is an educated man who can both read and write and through this he will survive. But although he doesn't want to simply survive, he also wants to live and adapts, as best he can, to the repugnant situation he finds himself unjustly in. Early in the film he sadly proclaims "Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost" but Solomon refuses this to believe this to be true and ingratiates himself to the vicious Plantation Owners and Masters without ever losing hope or self respect. But through his eyes and experiences we see all that is morally reprehensible and corrupt in 1840's America, vicious and cruel beatings, whippings, hangings, lynchings, verbal abuse, rape and families torn apart through a system based on the colour of a human being's skin. Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance will break your heart but as a cinematic experience it is utterly compelling.

Supporting Ejiofor's performance are numerous Hollywood stars in a stellar cast list. Michael Fassbender returns in his third collaboration with Director McQueen as an obnoxious, scripture reading drunk slave owner "Edwin Epps" and Fassbender infuses the horrible character with a steely eyed look of a rattlesnake who will, and does, strike at any moment. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the only slave owner who genuinely appears to have any remorse or conscience crisis as "Ford" and displays an immediate air of contrition and signs that despite the situation, he is uncomfortable at the spectre of slavery. He gives Solomon both a gift of a fiddle and of life, as he cuts him down from a day long hanging/lynching, with Solomon only surviving by the merest touches of tip toes on the ground. It is one of numerous harrowing scenes but like so many others, life goes on around the grotesque madness that surrounds the black slaves. Following his rescue Solomon tries to confide in Ford and detail his real identity and who he really is but even Ford cannot risk that and cuts him short "whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger Platt. But I fear no good will come of it". Further supporting roles come from Paul Giamatti as a vile, opportunist slave seller "Freeman" as he nails his colours to the mast when selling Solomon to Ford with the telling "My sentimentality extends the length of a coin" and the ever excellent Paul Dano is the skin crawling carpenter "Tibeats". Smaller cameo, yet important roles are filled by Garret Dillahunt as "Armsby", Rob Steinberg is excellent as shop owner "Parker" and Scoot McNairy portrays "Brown".

The final supporting role of note falls to Brad Pitt (who was also a producer on the film) in his role of "Bass". Bass is the film's moral heart and centre who challenges Edwin Epps on the morality of slavery and "there is no justice or righteousness in this slavery". Bass is a carpenter and worldly wise and although I've been a lifelong member of the Brad Pitt fan club, his performance, although morally needed in the film, is wooden at best, and there is no pun intended! But for a film that is thoroughly male dominated it is perhaps the female members of the cast who excel and shine above all. "Eliza", her family torn apart and her world broken in two is brilliantly realised by Adepero Oduye in a heart breaking performance and "Mistress Shaw" brings some sanity and light to the dark, dark shade and is well played by Alfre Woodard. "Mistress Epps" is as vile and obnoxious as her husband, constantly belittling the slaves and full of rage and anger at the "black bitches" and "black animals" and Sarah Paulson brilliantly brings to life a thoroughly hateful and despicable character. But last and very definitely not least is Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o as "Patsey". The Plantation's hardest working and most conscientious of the slaves, she has to fight to survive and fight to stave off the unwanted attention of Edwin Epps. It is a heartbreaking performance and her scene towards the end of the film with Solomon where she pleads with him to help her end her life is spirit crushing in the extreme. Nyong'o was utterly deserving of her Oscar win in a phenomenal performance.

So, as you may have guessed, this is yet another difficult to watch and gut wrenching cinematic experience from Steve McQueen! But relying on the source material and John Ridley's Oscar winning screenplay it is a triumph and an overwhelming experience to watch. The film itself is non-linear with many flashback and dream tinged sequences to Solomon's stable and pre-slavery life but the language and the savage brutality is direct, on screen and at times incredibly distressing. It encapsulates everything that is morally repugnant of the slave trade and it never shirks from the reality of the incredibly sad tale told through the original book. Surprisingly, returning Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt wasn't nominated for an Oscar for his excellent depiction of the vast vistas surrounding the plantations or the beautifully candle lit evening scenes, of which there are many, but I'm sure if Sean and Steve continue their partnership his day will surely come. Patricia Norris (Costume Design) and Joe Walker (Editing) also deserved their Oscar nominations, as did Adam Stockhausen (Production Design) and Alice Baker (Set Decoration). Hans Zimmer's musical score wasn't nominated but it's sweet, strings dominant sound is a joyous accompaniment to the film. Which leaves us with Director McQueen. Rightly an Oscar winner for Best Picture, he lost out in the Best Director category but if memory serves he made the most of his victory speech the first time around! It is an astounding, horrifying and tragic tale helmed by a master storyteller. And I for one cannot wait for his next cinematic offering.

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