Every one in the United Kingdom knows the story of Bobby Sands. He is a terrorist, freedom fighter, idealist, monster, hero, a sham and a fool depending on whom you ask. What Hunger does so well is using this historical consciousness of events to its advantage, deftly handling and, drawing on, long established and firm beliefs. This is a delicate subject—one certain to provoke—and a bold undertaking for first-time director Steve McQueen.
Perhaps to its detriment Hunger is aimed squarely at a European audience, presuming knowledge of the events depicted. Given this McQueen could have divested his film from its politics (and in a certain way he does) but he doesn’t quite do this. Hunger elects rather to actively participate in the historical dialectic, but it does so from a distance, presenting both the Irish Republican Army and the British in a rather uncharming light. Of course this works to great effect for the rest of the world, viewers unfamiliar with “The Troubles” or the recent history of the IRA generally. We have no emotional investment in the struggle and therefore must judge what we are shown and not what we are not shown.
Hunger montages the series of “political status protests” by IRA inmates from the mid-70’s through the early 80’s, culminating with the mass Irish hunger strike of 1981. Motive, like much else intrinsic to this struggle, is contested but the stated reason for protest is the crown’s removal of “Special Category Status” for inmates and subsequent refusal to acknowledge Republicans as political prisoners as opposed to common criminals. The film opens with the first of these protests—the so-called “blanket protest” in which prisoners refused to wear prison garments—and then proceeds to those that followed, establishing first the struggle without specifically commenting upon it (leaving most viewers in the dark) and second the prison system itself.
Interestingly, our lead is not immediately the focus. For the first half in fact his character is peripheral; just one man among many. This group is at first a collective: we don’t know their names, or their crimes, and there is no clear indication of which are Republicans. We are forced, in effect, to put identity aside and see them as merely “prisoners”. But before we see them even, the camera follows a prison guard inside and outside of the pen. Its a bit heavy-handed, but this is the only way we can possibly empathize with the “British” by suggesting that they have lives without, though they are lives infected with the violence intrinsic to their work. Following this one guard gives us a link to the external world (and its politics) and proves that one can never truly leave; that our actions can’t be divorced from who we are. However, aside from these brief sequences and an overdubbed British newscast the politics of the external world are dismissed in favor of the politics of prison life; verbal explication in favor of pictorial.
McQueen gives us, in effect, pure, intense, cinematic-visual experience, paced loosely but evenly. At times the aesthetic value of a particular shot may seem indulgent, even dubious, but collectively they are overwhelmingly effective. The grim atmosphere of prison life is built, as so many bricks, with intimate, vulnerable compositions, delicate camera movements; often in silence or near silence (the score being intermittent, quiet and subtle). McQueen renders his subjects from a distance in key scenes effectively alienating us. We are seemingly held captive between indulging the propaganda and identifying with these men qua human beings. The director creates and amplifies this tension, offsetting the emotionally distant and deferential shots with the very penetrating sequences of cell life.
The most striking of these must be the film’s treatment of the “dirty protest” where prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement. At least one man does not merely smear, but rather crafts a work of art with his feces. The filmmakers insist on capturing this fetid, geometrically-precise spiral adorning his wall from multiple angles and for quite a long time; it even graces the cover of the DVD release.
We never see these men commit acts of violence but only hear the accusations of their captors. Instead we see them repeatedly brutalized in several scenes; one of them preceded by prison guards in riot gear beating their shields thunderously with billy clubs. This forms a strong aural motif, one present from the very beginning, but for the rest of the film associated with this brutality. A man later scrubs urine off the floor (that earlier each prisoner had spilled from their cells in coordination, called “slopping-out”) of a long hallway. The camera is fixed at the opposite end so that he steadily approaches the foreground, pounding the squeegee against the stone to the same staccato rhythm.
Another scene shows a vicious one-sided attack as guards drive a naked man (Bobby in fact) through several rooms to bathe, shear and shave him. Even the grooming is incredibly savage. This violence seems to be more poignant, more agonizing, than a typical action movie (with bullets, blood and gore) and it’s owed once again to the distance of the camera, and certainly to the dehumanizing effect of stripping the men bare in the first place. This will tend to create sympathy for the IRA for many viewers, but McQueen’s film can hardly be construed as an endorsement (for either side). The strength of their perseverance, and of Bobby’s in particular, cannot be denied, but tenacity is not the equal of righteousness or rectitude.
If the first half of the film alienates us from these prisoners, the second half humanizes them. In-between we get a nearly twenty minute scene serving as a kind of fulcrum. Most of the film’s dialogue takes place here, and McQueen uses it to realize the character of Bobby Sands; we learn his hopes, his fears, his ideas on justice, the church. The photographer places the lens at a distance, profiling priest and prisoner, where it remains (without cuts) for about 13 minutes during which time Bobby burns and sucks back three cigarettes (a welcome reprieve from his bible-paper rolled prison smokes). We also hear his plans for the hunger strike allowing the priest to punctuate the moral imperative. He asks Bobby if he’s resolved to die, if he intends to commit what he calls suicide, to which Bobby responds with a macabre childhood tale illustrating his moral clarity. But in here he is no priest, nor is Bobby a freedom fighter; behind these walls they are only men. The silence of the priest before departure indicates his acknowledgment of, even respect for, the moral force of Bobby’s conviction.
This scene will be much talked about, if not for its syntagmatic significance within the film then at the very least for the superb acting of Fassbender and Cunningham. They have a strong script to work with (for this scene is so engaging it may not feel like 20 minutes) but, regardless, it’s difficult to maintain character (and remember all of those lines!) for such a long time. It’s also an exercise in mise-en-scène, whereas the rest of the film is largely montage; the director carefully keeping us distant (and therefore unable to discern the actors’ features) while the two shoot the bull, and then cutting to mid-shot to reveal their faces when they cut the crap and get to the issue at hand.
What follows is the hunger strike itself: a long montage of Bobby withering to nothing, refusing food, languishing in sick bed, ointment being applied to lesions. It is painful to watch, but it’s also probably the least interesting part of the film. And it’s hard to tell if these sequences were shot in such a way to give the appearance of starvation or if the actor did indeed subject himself to extreme weight loss. Either way, Hunger resolves itself by fulfilling its desirous title. Bobby is the first of several men to starve before the strike is called off, and history has recorded the rest.