From the standpoint of a UK mainlander, it is quite easy to forget the dark days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, so this first feature film by renowned visual artist Steve McQueen is an opportunity to remember recent history, as well as to reconsider it in the light of the present political climate and the current treatment of ‘political’ prisoners.
Bobby Sands was a member of the Provisional IRA who, in 1977, was sentenced to 14 years in jail for firearm possession. Housed in the newly opened prison in Maze, he rose to prominence through his eloquent writings and rhetoric, eventually becoming not only leader of the prisoners in Long Kesh, but also winning a seat in the House of Commons following his victory in a by-election. In his role as leader he became the spearhead of a series of protests against the treatment of those held in the prison, beginning with the infamous ‘blanket’ and ‘dirty’ protests, and subsequently leading the 1981 hunger strike which would lead to his slow physical degradation and painful death.
The first surprise about McQueen’s film is that it takes a long time for the main character to arrive, a bit like the wait for Orson Welles to turn up in The Third Man; instead of Sands, we start the film seeing through the eyes of a newly arrived inmate. We are spared little of the horrors of what conditions were like inside the Maze at the time of the protests of the inmates – excrement covered walls, maggot-infested piles of food rotting in corners, urine soaked corridors – and the director’s frequent use of slow, drawn-out takes allows the full horror to sink in. Beatings by the prison staff are frequent and bloody, but the director is careful to show the human side of some of the guards, unable to shut themselves off from the pain they are inflicting on their fellow men, but helpless to stop it. Political fence-sitting, maybe, but wise given the still delicate subject matter.
Is its only well into the running time that we are introduced to the ragged-looking Sands, played in hypnotically charismatic fashion by Michael Fassbender. He first explodes onto the screen being violently shorn of his hair and beard by a group of prison officers, such brutal treatment one suspects he was regularly subject to. But whilst other prisoners naturally react with pain from their beatings, there is an element of resignation and almost perverse pleasure about how he takes them. The film’s key theme, particularly in its second half, is the extent to which a man can put himself in through intense physical agony in order to make a political or personal point. Later on, we see the decay of Sands’ body as a result of the hunger strike, physical debilitation which is hard to describe in words in anywhere near enough graphic detail, but an extraordinary transformation from a well-built man to a frail shell.
Sands is celebrated by many Republicans as a hero, a martyr who died for his beliefs, and whose death inspired a new wave of volunteers to the IRA’s cause. Though McQueen denies any intention of this in interviews, there is an undeniable Christ-like presence in this screen portrayal of the man: despite his blasphemous ‘smoking’ of pages of the Bible, his stoic acceptance of torture, and the stigmata-like markings on his flesh towards the end of his life indicate otherwise. Perhaps to underplay this, the film is keen to stress that the man who Sands identified his actions with was actually his younger self, who put an injured young foal out of its misery to spare it of its pain, regardless of the consequences for himself.
Steve McQueen won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999, and presumably this has given him much more artisitic freedom than other directors might expect to have, but this is where Hunger runs into difficulties. As much as it is hard to criticize a director for taking risks and straying from the conventions of the filmmaking rulebook, there are moments in the film where storytelling appears to play second fiddle to technique. One scene, where a porter slowly disinfects and sweeps the prison corridor of urine, lasts far too long to the point of becoming boring, whilst offering nothing to the story or mood. Other moments are stretched out for all they are worth, often feeling like filmmaking experiments rather than necessary elements to the story.
In the film’s most bravura scene, Sands and his priest conduct a twenty-minute conversation almost entirely framed in one shot and in one take. Whilst this can be applauded on a technical level, it adds virtually nothing to the scene, and actually has the effect of slightly distancing the viewer from what is being said, as well as highlighting the rather clunky, over-expository dialogue. Some of the film’s risks do pay off: for instance, the lack of dialogue for much of the film’s opening, suddenly punctuated by the chatter of inmates gathered at Mass, works extremely effectively.
Hunger will no doubt cause controversy on its release, if only for its subject matter rather than what it is trying to add to the debate: Sands remains the most divisive figure in the Republican-Unionist clash, and the film is bound to open old wounds. One has somewhat to question the motives of the filmmaker in choosing to make this film at this point in time – far enough away from the actual event, but still in a time when the partisan likes of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley are still on the political scene. While undeniably a hard-hitting document of a terrible period of history in a particular place, there is not enough outside information about the context to inform a viewer with no knowledge of the Troubles, nor is there a central argument to please either side of the debate, ultimately pleasing no-one. Maybe this is the point – to show that there are no winners or losers in a situation as horrific as this. Powerful, if unfocused, filmmaking.