Thursday, July 10, 2014
I was nine when Bobby Sands led the controversial hunger strikes in The Maze prison, Northern Ireland, and I remember the news coverage even if I was too young – and, let’s face it, too fucking English – to understand the wider concept. Not that the news reports I saw would have given me that: then, as now, the BBC covered the news the government told it to, with the bias the government determined.
‘Hunger’, the debut feature film by Turner Prize-winning visual artist Steve McQueen, burns with a righteous anger at the British government’s intervention in Ireland and its treatment of political prisoners. McQueen’s attention to detail, and his ability to communicate the rhythms, rituals and repetitions of prison life, is the basis for a steady and unflinching accretion of sound, image and an almost tactile immersion of his audience in the milieu depicted. The overall effect is shattering; draining. ‘Hunger’ is a film you don’t just watch; you undergo it. Anger at the system is palpable. Strange, then, to think that McQueen accepted a CBE just three years after he made this film.
‘Hunger’ shifts perspective twice before it focuses on Sands (Michael Fassbender), debates the ethics of his decision to go on hunger strike, and documents the physical – and ultimately terminal – repercussions. Early scenes are vignettes from prison warder Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham)’s day-to-day life: the ritual of checking the street for attackers and the underside of his car for incendiary devices before he leaves for work; the worried face of his wife at the window; the tense drive to the Maze, his eyes riveted to the rearview mirror; a moment of inner torment in a washroom, Lohan immersing bruised hands in a sink full of cold water; a lunchbreak spent alone from the rambunctious conversation of his fellow guards. A particularly effective moment is a cigarette break, Lohan in shirt sleeves despite the snow that whirls about him. Flakes dissolve on his epaulettes. His head tilts back and his face loses focus. This is a man who is lost, whose job has gone beyond defining him and may well be destroying him.
Next, we’re thrust into the company of Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan); his introduction to the Maze is ritual humiliation: he’s compelled to strip naked, given a rough blanket and thrown into a cell with a similarly denuded Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon). Dirty protest has obviously been the order of the day: the walls are smeared with excrement. McQueen’s camera unhurriedly inspects the filth. Coprophobes will spend much of the running time acquainting themselves with the fast-forward button. The food is as bad as the conditions; uneaten slop is left to solidify then molded into a sort of fence around the door so the decant contents of their shared piss-bucket floods the corridor and not their cell. McQueen stages two extended, wordless scenes in which sanitation staff undertake deep cleans. Prisons, it is implied, don’t just imprison the prisoners.
Finally, almost a third of the way into the movie, Sands takes centre stage and our first real introduction is as he – and his fellow prisoners – are dragged from their cells and beaten by police in riot gear and subjected to intrusive body searches that basically constitute institutionalized sexual violation. They’re hosed down and given haircuts that leave their scalps and foreheads gouged and bleeding. It’s an horrific scene that fills in the ellipses in the Lohan sequence and entirely changes our perception of him. It’s difficult to feel any sympathy when his careful system of checks and cautious behaviour fails him and, in the most grimly inappropriate of settings, he gets what’s coming.
And from Sands as piñata for the establishment to Sands as activist, fighter, martyr. McQueen gives us everything we need to know about Sands – his beliefs, his background, his politics, his discipline, the strength of his convictions – in a truly astounding 17-minute single take dialogue scene in which the camera doesn’t move a millimetre. The aesthetic is as stripped down as possible: one table, two chairs, Sands and his mentor/confessor Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) sitting opposite each other, the gunmetal blue smoke of cigarette after cigarette curling between them. 17 minutes during which they talk politics, religion, morality; two intensely gifted and naturally intuitive performers batting the dialogue between them. It’s a mesmerising scene, almost hypnotic except that it’s challenging, difficult, thought-provoking – cinema at its least attention-seeking and most intellectually powerful.
The final half hour of ‘Hunger’ charts Sands’s physical depletion, Fassbender rivalling Christian Bale’s extreme weight loss for ‘The Machinist’ and ‘Rescue Dawn’. Charts it against the painfully dignified vigil kept by his parents. Charts it against his memories of a childhood cross-country race (shades here of Tom Courtenay’s anti-establishment icon Colin Smith in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’).
Following the brutal violence of the first third, and the rigorous debate of the mid-section, this final act is quieter but no less shattering. McQueen presents his protagonist’s emaciated body as the canvas upon which he layers in, one precise brush stroke at a time, a detailed and visceral portrait of political protest, human fragility and a principle followed through at the highest cost.