Hunger (2008)

Director: Steve McQueen

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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of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, the political detainee status of prisoners arrested during “The Troubles” was revoked, and the label “criminal” put in its place.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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • sheila spoke:
    21st/04/2009 to 12:33 pm

    Rod –
    I have not seen Hunger yet, but I am really looking forward to it. Thanks so much for an eloquent review.
    I was in Ireland as a child during the period of the hunger strikes, and I remember vividly the kind of tense eerie atmosphere over the entire country at that time. I was 14, so I was aware of what was going on in the newspapers, and the general focus of everyone on the events up in northern Ireland. I could not believe, at that young age, that anyone would allow those men to die. We stayed in the South – my dad took some jaunts to the North at the time – but it was considered far too dangerous at the time to travel up there on a vacation with four kids.
    I have since been to Belfast, and I have much more complex feelings about the Troubles now that I am an adult – but I have an acquaintance in Belfast who was on the “blanket protest” back then, and knew Sands extremely well, and having him show me around Belfast was truly something else.
    I look forward to seeing the film.

  • sheila spoke:
    21st/04/2009 to 1:44 pm

    I just wanted to clarify that in my comment when I say I have “complex” feelings about The Troubles it really means that I do not have that romantic-rush about the IRA that many Irish-Americans (in particular) do. It seems black and white, because both sides have a vested interest in it appearing to be black and white … but it is not.
    As you wrote so well:
    //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.//
    That’s it, exactly.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/04/2009 to 4:22 pm

    Sheila, I spent many years studying terrorism, chiefly after a visit to Ireland when I was 22. My favorite author of the subject of Irish terrorism is Martin Dillon. I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and I have zero romantic notions about the IRA. I suppose I have the advantage of not being Irish, so have no upbringing to work against. Nonetheless, the mystique of the Irish is strong throughout the world, so sympathy for the cause without concern for how it’s accomplished is widespread.

  • sheila spoke:
    21st/04/2009 to 4:29 pm

    My first impression of The Troubles came from something visceral – being there during the hunger strikes, without understanding what it was all about. I just saw the emaciated pictures in the paper and was very scared. I was a kid. It didn’t really have to do with being Irish – not all Irish-Americans are IRA nuts! I love Martin Dillon.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/04/2009 to 4:02 am

    Hi Sheila. Thank you for bringing your intimate perspective to the table. I certainly hope you see the film soon.
    I too have complex feelings about The Troubles, and I tried to side-step these for the most part in the review, because I feel artworks ought to be considered, for the larger part, in terms of what they want to say, not what I want them to say. The film is not intended to sway one politically, and in many ways it’s rendered out of time: though the film does not avoice specificities, it could just as well be playing out in Apartheid-era South Africa or Stasiland. It’s mostly an attempt to portray the immediate reality of a situation in terms of raw flavor – what it’s like to be in a small soiled cell, or beaten up by hordes of masked men, or to live in fear of assassination, or starve slowly to death – as an experience rather than a rhetorical springboard. Nonetheless, a quick glance at the message boards on the IMDb reveals how swiftly it all gets swept into easy formulations along the lines of “Bobby Sands was a hero” or “terrorists are all evil.”
    I don’t romanticize the Republicans either; a lot of them were, by the ‘90s, little more than gangsters coating stand-over tactics and drug dealing with thin veneers of political justification, and I dare say they’re generally the type of people I despise. For a fine portrait of this, the telemovie Omagh from 2004 with Gerard McSorley captures the disconnection between the community and the people supposedly fighting for it. Something Hunger nails vitally is the viciousness both sides feel justified in unleashing – random assassinations on one side as well as the (not portrayed) bombings of civilians; beatings and brutality on the other, hate feeding on hate in a conflict that’s far less rational than it pretends to be. The difference is that one side calls it a war and the other calls it sheer criminality, turning semantics into something of enormous importance: controlling the terms of debate is as much a weapon as a gun. It’s a truism to say, “killing innocent people is wrong”, and call the bombings of civillian targets through the ’70s and ’80s indefensible from any civilised standpoint, but it doesn’t entirely erase another viewpoint, which Lauren Wissot summed up exceptionally well in her review of the film for Slant Magazine:
    It’s fascinating that Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning black artist born and bred in a land that defines itself by “country first” (and is having its own faith shaken at a time when many young Brits are defining themselves as “Muslim first”) would create a film that subtly uncovers his homeland’s hypocrisy. For the British believe in “country first” only when that country is England, which is why Irish Republican nationalism (Ireland’s own version of “country first”) historically has been so offensive, thus brutally repressed. In contrast, America has always been a land of identity politics, defining our groups as “African-American,” “Mexican-American,” “Jewish-American,” the “American” always second in importance. But in England, it’s always “Anglo” first (McQueen is not “Caribbean-British” or “African-English”), an offensive veil that the Provisional IRA fought to rip away.
    This is very true, and I think anyone with roots in the dear Britannic isles, but who do not share that core, privileged identity (we know who they are – the ones whose ancestors are swanning about in the Austen novels) recognizes the formulations of insider and outsider which were, under all the pretence of the era’s overt rhetoric, still being acted out with pathological force, especially by Thatcher in her culturally genocidal wrath against not just the Republicans but anyone not subscribing to her political philosophy, be they miners, trade unionists, or local governments. Hearing Thatcher’s voice in the film moved me to squirming rage, I’ll admit, because it’s still so easy to recognize under its theoretically righteous phraseology the school-bully arrogance and ignorant centrist assumptiveness. In her voice, it’s hard not to feel, is encoded everything Sands was motivated by. But of course, Thatcher didn’t create the situation, any more than the brutal guards in the Maze are responsible for the prisoners being there. Sands himself was by all accounts more a socialist revolutionary – like a Weatherman, except competent – than a plain nationalist, and I think it’s this core of fierce idealism and sense of innate responsibility that fuels McQueen’s vision of him, and which makes him interesting. We talk a lot about “romanticized rebel” figures these days, but this often excises the rebel part – the real, honest will to not accept situations – with the falsified – and therefore dismissable – part emphasised. In McQueen’s eyes, Sands is willing to convert his own body into a word, a statement, a voice, even perhaps a work of art, in the desperate urge to be heard. McQueen, I think, is intuitively drawn to understand the real nature of the rebel in Sands in terms far more imperative than the tinny clamour of Mel Gibson shouting “Freedom!”, and also well as the fear in Lohan, which drives both to commit (or at least be associated with) heinous acts: powerful, irreconcilable truths.
    The past eight or so years have presented to the political conscience a lot of almost madly conflicting impulses. I’ve often contemplated the point Sartre made nearly a half-century ago during the Algerian uprising, that terrorism is a legitimate weapon for oppressed peoples and groups who have no armies or diplomatic power, and the serious test that The Troubles (and many other conflicts) have subjected this idea to is, was who lays down the rules of such warfare? what rules are there? where does it all stop? who says it will all stop? and so forth. But there’s still, again, a deep-rooted part of me that objects to the notion everyone should have to bow to the prerogative of one group simply because they have mastery of the terms of rhetoric and force.
    So the film touched something in me, a recognition of how hard it can be to get powerful entities to listen, and how that frustration can turn into irrational anger that can be turned outwards and inwards, and there’s a force in this that can’ be, or at least shouldn’t be, easily summarized in, as you say, black and white terms.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/04/2009 to 8:05 am

    Well said, Rod. The early 20th century IRA were socialists and communists, adopting the ideology of socialism and communism that was sweeping the world. It is that IRA for which I have some affinity. As you say, by the 90s, they were little more than thugs and criminals.
    Terrorism may be an understandable response to the crushing hand of authority, but I would venture to say that nonviolent protests have done more, in general, to create lasting change. After a century of violence, the Republicans finally got closer to their aims (and certainly the put-upon Northern Irish got some peace at a last) by talking power to power. The overthrow of the Bushies in this country came about peacefully, whereas the violence of the 60s only galvanized them to their cause. South Africans met savagery with persistent protest, and their Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a model for the world.

  • Jonathan spoke:
    24th/04/2009 to 5:44 pm

    “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, and political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this.”
    — Margaret Thatcher

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