Friday, March 20, 2009


2008, UK/Ireland, directed by Steve McQueen
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Steve McQueen's debut film is the way it imagines a world which remained visually off limits during the course of the Troubles. When I was growing up, Bobby Sands and H-Block were a constant presence in graffiti slogans and on the news, but the cameras never went inside the walls of the Maze prison where the hunger strikes took place. Sands and his fellow hunger strikers exist for most of us in just a few grainy pictures, often from happier days on the outside.

Here we see not just cells and inmates but the detailed rituals of life behind the bars of Long Kesh: the methods by which messages were smuggled into the prison, the ways in which the prisoners dressed and communicated, the often brutal searches by guards. There's a stunning extended shot during which a guard bleaches a prison hallway and then methodically brushes urine toward the camera, encapsulating the constant back and forth struggle between prisoners and authorities as well as the deadening repetitiveness of life in prison, during which time seems to extend without end.

By contrast, apart from intermittent snippets of Margaret Thatcher on the soundtrack, there's little sense of the outside world and the political and social context in which the protests took place. It's as if the film is less concerned with politics than with re-creating a set of extreme human experiences. While the policies of the Thatcher government were clearly problematic, both at the time and in retrospect, she's the easy target in some ways, too. The film doesn't quite play fair by demonising her intransigence while failing to mention that at least some of the IRA prisoners were less political prisoners than out-and-out thugs (and Thatcher came awfully close to being blown up just a few years later in a Brighton hotel; I've no sympathy with her politics but none for the idea of bombing her hotel, either).

Hans Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521)
Steve McQueen: Hunger (2008)

There's a tendency, too, to reinforce the mythologies which the IRA adeptly employed in the course of the hunger strike, most notably in references to Christ's suffering. McQueen's apparently unsentimental depiction of the effects of the hunger strike aestheticizes Sands's body, reinforcing the sense of noble sacrifice without always subjecting his cause to rigorous examination: one shot is almost a literal copy of Holbein's profoundly unsettling painting of Christ's body as it lies in the tomb. There's more balance, and often brutal honesty, in the extended debate between Sands (an extraordinary performance by Michael Fassbender) and the prison priest, which highlights the critical role of Catholic clergy as mediators in the Troubles: you wonder if the reputation of the Catholic Church survived in Ireland for a few extra years by virtue of the often selfless interventions of individual men and women of the cloth in the North. McQueen creates a fascinating contrast between an ultimately pragmatic priest and Sands,who is driven - at least in this telling - in large measure by faith in his cause rather than by reason, and who is unwilling to question whether he's a leader or a pawn in manoeuvres happening far above him.


I've read several excellent analyses of Hunger online: I found Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny especially helpful in thinking about the film. [Update June 2011: Sheila O'Malley has a terrific consideration of the acting work in the film's extended central scene.]

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States