Director: Steve McQueen
Director of Photography:
Running time: 90 minutes
There is greatness behind every shot in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. This film marks the début of a remarkable talent that does not come round very often and demonstrates what is still possible within the realm of so-called alternative cinema. While all the conventional tricks have been avoided, they have been replaced by new approaches to representation and produced a work that is poetic yet immediate, at times subjective yet never silly, has gritty realism yet shines with an amazingly distinct visual style and is never drab, and despite its minimal use of the spoken word rolls along fluidly.
At the end of 1980, after more than four years of a “blanket protest”, during which prisoners refuse to don the prison uniforms, since they considered themselves a different kind of prisoner (i.e. a political prisoner), and a “now wash protest”, which is self-explanatory, an Irish republican named Bobby Sands decided to go on hunger strike in protest against the British government.
Bobby Sands is played here by Michael Fassbender and his performance strips him down to the bone, both physically and emotionally. The word that jumps to mind is “visceral”, and it covers much of the film, which contains many scenes of prisoners being beaten with many different kinds of weapons — hands and handheld.
In the film’s first 15 minutes, barely a word is spoken, as we follow a prison guard whose knuckles always seem to be raw, from his home where he looks under his car before puling out of the driveway every morning to the prison where he works. A new boy has just been admitted, and immediately upon arrival, he sides with the rest of the prisoners at the prison (it is Maze prison, which used to be located just south-west of Belfast, in Northern Ireland) in refusing to wear the prison uniform and is taken to his cell, where the walls are covered in faeces and food.
And in one scene, urine streams down a corridor, cascading from mashed potato embankments inside the cells. In another, maggots crawl next to a sleeping inmate inside his cell. To this scene, shot with from a stationary viewpoint, McQueen brings the same beauty as when the prison guard smokes outside in the snow and a close-up of his hands (often repeated throughout the film) shows a snowflake melting on his reddened knuckles.
McQueen fully engages both image and sound, and stages his action in a way that pushes his film towards a kind of transcendentalism. In another scene, the prisoners are subjected to a cavity search. Scores of guards, in riot gear, line a corridor while a naked prisoner faces the onslaught of batons, fists and feet, until he reaches a central area and is rectally searched in the most violent manner possible. The camera swerves to mirror the energy of the moment, and yet the effect is not confusion but rather inspirational empathy with the prisoners. Then, towards the end of the scene, we realise, with great surprise, that one of the prison guards has been reduced to tears and is standing behind a wall, sobbing.
This brief moment, perhaps more than the technical and visual dexterity of the director, shows his compassion for the whole spectrum of characters in his film and made me think of those few seconds, at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, when the vicious monster that was unleashed on Luke is destroyed and this monster’s keeper is similarly heartbroken. So few film makers realise that it is always more interesting to have characters do the unexpected than the expected actions of their narrative peers.
But it is the film’s much-commented scene at its midpoint, an unbroken take 16½ minutes in length featuring Sands and a priest, that pushes the film into the upper echelons of film making and underscores the genius of the film maker. Though very different in tone from the aforementioned scene of the full cavity search, and some truly violent interactions between the prisoners and their guards, our attention is kept rapt thanks to both the performances and the courage of the film maker that delivers a breathtaking moment of stasis at the centre of physical chaos.
Even as the film turns towards a more spiritual perspective, while Sands is suffering from the physical effects of being on a hunger strike, the film elegantly switches between direct point of view and oblique point of view, which affects the camera’s movement while still regarding him from the outside. The addition of superimposed birds swarming over his face while the camera hovers menacingly over his hospital bed, is no simple-minded Gus van Sant-inspired gimmick, but a perfectly distilled, truly magnificent expression of a state of mind.
One minor flaw is the introduction of Bobby Sands’s character — he simply appears, as if from nowhere, to take centre stage. The characters we meet in the faeces-covered cell give a human perspective to the material, and when they are replaced by Bobby’s plot thread, the connection to the story is retained despite the lack of a back story for Sands. So, while McQueen handles this transition very well, the balancing act does not completely make up for the fact that an important part of the story is missing. Perhaps, McQueen assumed we would forgive him this oversight since Sands has some messianic status, an argument underlined by a moment in which he is carried, Pieta-like (or Marat-like?), from a bathtub back to his bed.