Watching Hunger is a
painful and illuminating experience. It cuts to the marrow of a tendentious,
charged historical moment via flawless visual storytelling.
The film starts out by documenting the effects of external brutality
upon a group of jailed IRA soldiers. A long conversation between
two key characters serves as a kind of entr'acte, wherein we are privy
to the logic behind the inversion of that brutality. The second
act allows that inversion to play out through Bobby Sands' conscious
decision to subvert the external brutality with self-imposed starvation,
a tactic that simultaneously takes him out from beneath the boots of
his jailers, while condemning himself to an even harsher fate than that
of his fellows. The film's structure is deliberate and purposeful.
In telling the story of the Maze and Bobby Sands, the filmmakers have
eschewed historical context and political angles in favor of focusing
almost exclusively on life inside the prison. It's a narrow
way of covering true events, but it also allows the craft of filmmaking
to intuitively find the heart of the story without becoming stuck in
the minutiae of historical re-creation.
We are only introduced to Sands
at the first act's end; the preceding screen time mainly follows Davey
(Brian Milligan), a prisoner new to HM Prison Maze in Belfast.
He has been imprisoned for six years for crimes that are not revealed
to us. His cellmate Gerry (Liam McMahon) has covered their walls
with shit, sometimes in elaborate patterns. We go on to learn
about life in the Maze through Davey's frightened eyes. The
story begins in the midst of the Blanket and No Wash protests (a reaction
to the British government having revoked IRA prisoners' political
status), during which they refuse to wear uniforms or bathe. Forced
haircuts and baths lead to much jailer-on-prisoner violence, with any
and all prisoner resistance exponentially increasing its severity.
Toward the end of this first act, we are introduced to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Sands was sentenced to fourteen years in the Maze for possession of a revolver. We first seem him being dragged kicking and screaming into a lavatory
where guards hack off his long, filth-encrusted hair and hold him in
a bathtub for a cursory scrub.
The aforementioned entr'acte
takes place shortly after this. It consists of a long conversation
between Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham), in which Sands announces
his intention to go on a hunger strike and the priest tries to dissuade
him. It's a very long scene - about 20 minutes, with most
of that time devoted to a single still, unbroken shot. The two
actors carry it off expertly, although I question the speed of their
delivery. Hunger is a slow, steady film and this scene
features energetic, play-like performances that feel out of step with
the movie's tone. There is much that is impressive about this
long, ambitious, emotional sequence, but I can't help feeling that
it doesn't live up to its intentions.
The second act exclusively follows Sands'
deterioration in unflinchingly graphic detail that avoids seeming gratuitous or exploitative.
Hunger was co-written
and directed by Steve McQueen, and was my introduction to his work.
Hunger is relentlessly sensory. The visuals consist of formally-composed
shots that convey the story in a highly-controlled way. Expository
dialogue is virtually nonexistent, with the exception of the entr'acte.
The camera is the narrator, and it shows what we need to know about
the hideous conditions in the Maze.
One might question the aesthetically-pleasing
style of Hunger. Such raw subject matter could have received
a grittier, handheld, choppier treatment designed to push our faces
into the filth. This, of course, would have also forced an audience
to sympathize with the prisoners. (Although Hunger focuses
on prisoners' experiences, it also takes time to follow an unnamed
prison guard [Stuart Graham], who partakes in violence against prisoners,
but appears to know that he's less of a person for it.) I think
McQueen's visual choices are mesmerizing and effective. Formal
compositions alert us that we are being directed to look at something
in particular. Whereas the subjective camera places us in a position
that evokes a specific emotional response, formality leaves it up to
us to ask why we're seeing a particular image framed in a particular
way. Composition is as out of fashion in film as it is in painting,
but it's a technique that brings us back to the basic communicative
nature of art, and McQueen handles it with care and dexterity.
Images and ideas from Hunger
linger persistently. Fassbender's transformation into the starved
Sands is alarming. Graham's nearly silent performance as the
demoralized guard is also terribly compelling. With bracing focus,
McQueen's film studies a particular set of events and human responses
to extreme circumstances. As Sands experiences a slow, agonizing
death, we are offered a glimpse into the type of rare strength required
to rebuke an impenetrable institution of authority.