Director: Steve McQueen
By Roderick Heath
Hunger, Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s debut film, is ostensibly an account of the death of Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands. But it’s not a hagiography of a victim any more than it’s an everyday piece of cinema. Hunger, in its minimalist way, burrows its way into a situation laden with a hate, terror, outrage, and determination so powerful it finds purest expression in being turned on the self. The immediate narrative of Hunger tells of how, early in the tenure of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, the political detainee status of prisoners arrested during “The Troubles” was revoked, and the label “criminal” put in its place. In protest, the occupants of Belfast’s Maze Prison refused to wear prison-issue uniforms, began wearing blankets as clothing, refused to wash and cut their hair, and wiped their own excrement on their cell walls. Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who was elected a minister of Parliament whilst in prison, established a hunger strike and became the first of 10 protesters to die, eventually forcing the British government to concede to their demands in all ways except officially. The film unremittingly details the causes, logic, and grim result of Sands’ actions.
Hunger is more a study of ramifications than politics or character, though the latter aspects affect the former in complex ways. The cinematic narrative begins with two other figures. There’s a fresh, young prisoner, Davey (Brian Milligan) who feebly tries to refuse the treatment he’s being given and then has to submit to a humiliating strip as a prelude to being thrown in with Gerry (Liam McMahon), who looks like a cavemen after months of the “No Wash.” And there’s a guard in the prison, Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham), whose morning routine begins the film—after a listless breakfast, he goes to his car and checks under it for bombs. He is glimpsed daily dipping his raw, bloody knuckles in ice water and, later, having a lonely cigarette. This repeated damage and inculcated isolation and paranoia is the inevitable result of the environment in which he works—a grimy, stinking asylum of resistance and hatred—and the threat of violent reprisal from Republicans on the outside. McQueen slowly reveals his sympathy and distance from both jailers and jailed.
Sands becomes the focus of the film only gradually. In the movie’s longest scene, Sands converses with his parish priest, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), whom he calls in before beginning the hunger strike to sort through his own feelings. Both men are terse, tough men of the world whose native pith is infused with a rich and articulate set of values: the priest prods Sands’ motives for signs of morbidity and lack of thorough judgment. Sands ripostes in no uncertain terms of how he is forced to follow his conclusion—that resistance is necessary—to the only end now left to him. Despite being a Catholic, he subscribes to an ethos fundamentally alien to a religious sense of transcendence, seeing right and wrong as being questions limited to the immediate world. The sequence is amazing in its sheer length (23 minutes, and riveting all the way), for its depth of engaged analysis, the sense of both the similarities and sharply delineated differences between the two men, and the startling, rapid-fire acting that puts to shame most of the pompous showboating seen lately in the awards season.
Sands outlines his resolve by telling of an event from his adolescence, when a jolly jaunt in the country with some other lads ended in him drowning an injured foal, thus courting punishment, but gaining respect from the other boys for revealing the will to do what was right. This same characteristic still dominates him, and as he dies, he returns in fantasy to that same rural landscape in a moment that evokes the biblical quote featured in Robert Bresson’s similar A Man Escaped (1956): “The spirit breathes where it will.” An early moment in which Davey toys with a bug he plucks through a hole in the cell window prefigures an inversion, with Sands’ haunted memories of birds beating in the trees during his country run, and as Sands dies, the walls of the prison seem to become less real than the twilight natural realm he runs through. It’s only here, in the Christlike reconfiguring of Sands, whose secular sensibility has been stated, that the film’s rigour slackens. McQueen doesn’t seem to be able to think of anything other than hoary spiritual suggestions in those fluttering birds as a way to underline the awe involved in Sands’ self-consumption for his cause. The solidity of the details of Sands’ sore-riddled, bony body speaks far more profoundly of mortality and the thin grip we have on it.
Recent works, like Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, have envisioned the Thatcher era in Britain as a kind of Gilded Age with an almost Romanesque sense of entitlement and exclusivity for select circles; Hunger provides a counterbalance in detailing the firm suppression and silencing of opposing voices that coincided with that time. Ironically, although nobody says much through much of the film, the act of sending messages in ways other than literate, civil communication is the issue. Political viability and whose prerogatives decide which voice is called legitimate and which isn’t is a vital question in Hunger. Throughout the film, the intolerably smug tones of Thatcher feature on the soundtrack in speeches to parliament that lay down her sense of utter prerogative in wielding power; against this, the prisoners employ their own paltry weapons to reduce their immediate environment to one of third-world squalor. The film captures the essence of a hateful resolve as it reveals the purpose of the prisoners and the inflamed character of the jailers.
At one point, the prisoners are given clean, new rooms: they sit blinking,in momentarily dazed silence, and then begin to trash the the rooms with explosive thoroughness. In swift reprisal, riot squad police are called. They drag out and mercilessly beat the naked, defenceless men, whilst one young copper hides away in horror and disgust: his is the sorrow and revulsion of someone not engaged in these clashes of will, and thus, is a stand-in for the general audience. There’s an implicit irony as Thatcher unequivocally tars all of the Irish Nationalists as thuggish terrorists unworthy of any engagement, and yet the state uses medieval tactics when it feels like it. But McQueen reveals the grotesque force of both sides by evoking a primal kind of war. When Lohan goes to visit his aged, senile mother in a nursing home, a masked gunman walks in and blows Lohan’s brains out all over the uncomprehending old lady.
This is not such a new perspective for a British film. John Mackenzie’s little-seen, rough-as-guts 1979 classic A Sense of Freedom, about the trials of Glasgow loan shark and gangster Jimmy Boyle and his war against prison authorities, told a similar story with as much grit and moral probing about who deserves what kind of treatment. Mackenzie’s film was in a more traditional form of docucrama; McQueen’s film is borderline abstract art, and in description, his style might sound a mix of the arid and drawn out and grossly grueling, but it’s a quietly dynamic film. He has, for all his pretence, a fine sense of when to cut so his sequences do not drag. The final descent of Sands into a wasted, delirious, sore-encrusted state permits no vagueness about what it entails, but is still judicious; most importantly, Sands’ conversation with the priest has rendered it entirely explicable in personal and moral terms. McQueen is subtler and more intense than Ken Loach’s hectoring, dolorous The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), and it’s a long way from the raw melodrama of, say, Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father (1993), not least for dealing with an admitted Republican’s moral perspective and the ambiguity this implies in his contest with the state. He is, after all, a terrorist.
The film’s most affecting images however, do not concern, violence or suppurating flesh, but incidental detail used for powerful metaphorical purpose: the prisoners tip their buckets of urine under the doors to collect and stream down the corridor; later a lone prison guard listlessly copes with the daily task of cleaning up the spillage. The urine is standing in for and indeed is, in itself, political statement, and as the fluid collects, it mimics the totality of a communal statement; the guard’s cleaning is both the immediate practical necessity and also the establishment’s increasingly wearied attempts to wash away the dissent. This film is not going to be anyone’s idea of a fun night at the movies, and it doesn’t entirely escape its arthouse roots, but Hunger at least has tough questions for its audience and asks them in fiercely creative ways.