Film Review #188: Hunger
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham
Midway through this film about Bobby Sands, the first of ten Irish nationalist prisoners to die in the 1981 hunger strike in the North of Ireland in a bid to reclaim P.O.W. status from their British jailers, Sands (Michael Fassbender) tells a priest about a trip he took as a boy.
Sands was a cross-country runner in school – Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) says this explains a lot – and at 12 crossed the border to lush, green Donegal, a chance to run against boys from the Irish Republic “and Protestants too.” Immersed in countryside unlike industrialized Belfast – listening, you feel this was his first naked contact with his own land – he’d gone for a warm-up jog in nearby woods along a stream. There Sands encountered “five boys from Cork, deliberating what to do” about a foal that had snapped its leg between some rocks in the water. Knowing he’d somehow get blamed for this mishap anyway and seeing the animal’s pain, Sands drowned the foal.
Sands recalls an irate priest dragged him back through those woods and tells Moran, “I could take the punishment for everyone and I had the respect of the other boys. I knew I did right by that foal.” A pause. “I’m clear on the repercussions.”
This scene – really the second of three acts in playwright Enda Walsh’s stylized script – comprises a 17-minute, single-take exchange between Sands and Moran shot nearly in silhouette, until the first lit close-up when Sands relates that Donegal incident. Between small talk about Moran’s younger brother – also a priest, a “pushy little twerp” – getting the parish assignment Moran wanted and Sands’ dry jokes about using Bible pages only from the Book of Lamentations to roll cigarettes, Moran tries every argument to dissuade Sands from the impending strike.
Much of the scene’s dramatic strength pivots finally on Sands’ recourse to resonant image. (When Sands later nears death, he first sees his 12-year-old self beside the infirmary bed, then returns to that now-foggy path in the woods.) Though itself a fiction, this scene with Moran seems faithful to Sands’ considerably well-developed poetic side – his vivid prison writings are available in paperback – and clarifies the approach to history taken by Walsh and director Steve McQueen, the son of West Indian immigrants and a British Turner Prize-winning visual artist.
Though punctuated with two chilling voice-over sound clips from British PM Margaret Thatcher’s speeches, this is not the literal historic treatment many wanted – not regarding Ireland’s ancient tradition of hunger strike as means of complaint (dating from pre-Christian times), its closer tie to Ireland’s early 20th century independence, civil war and partition (notably the 1920 death of Cork’s mayor, Terrence MacSwiney, which Gerry Adams says directly inspired Gandhi’s 17 hunger strikes) or even surrounding events in Long Kesh (McQueen’s scrolling text uses the British name, “Maze Prison”).
In the first act, which opens with guard Robert Lohan (Stuart Graham) washing his hands Pilate-like, depicts a pair of cell-mates living with the daily grind of monotony, filth and sudden brutality, and includes a boyish, helmeted riot trooper who flinches before naked prisoners as he strikes his plastic shield with his baton and bellows, Sands emerges only gradually. In the third act, instead of recounting the trips of high-level emissaries to Sands’ bedside (European Parliament members and the Pope’s secretary among them) or Sands’ in-absentia election to British Parliament (over 30,000 votes), McQueen and Walsh meditate on Sands’ excruciating wasting. As tenderly as some medical staff treat him, a beefy aide with “UDA” tattooed on his knuckles (for the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defense Association) lets Sands collapse naked on the floor and carries him, Pieta-like, back to bed. The accumulating visual imagery here is frank. When Sands opens his eyes one day, his vision deteriorating, to make out his mother dozing off, your mind goes straight to the apostles sleeping in Gethsemane.
Once specializing in short, often silent, gallery video installations, McQueen moved to feature-length cinema with his own west London boyhood recollections of TV bulletins that counted out Sands’ last 66 days and Goya’s war-time paintings as his model. He says Britain’s Channel 4 Film approached him with this project over five years ago, before Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo exposés. Although the Wall Street Journal (1/16) included Hunger among new European films that risk glorifying terrorism, McQueen and Walsh seem more intent on accounting for the enduring depth of response to Sands and the cost on all sides. (One of the most breath-stopping moments is built upon the guard Robert Lohan's sudden death in his invalid, unseeing mother's lap).
Hunger took the Camera d’Or for best first film at Cannes last year (with similar prizes in Sydney, Toronto and elsewhere, and spots on several annual Best lists). But it arrives here late, not opening theatrically in the US until March 20th in limited release. It screens locally next week, the finale in the Central New York Irish-American Cultural Institute’s annual film fest. Curator Jim MacKillop has provided a thread and some background by starting off with two films covering independence, civil war and partition, George Morrison’s seldom-seen 1961 documentary Saoirse?/Freedom? and Ken Loach’s 2006 drama – like Hunger, another Cannes-disrupter – The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
A shorter version of this review appears in the 2/12/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in the column “Make it Snappy.” Hunger screens next Tuesday, 2/17, 7:00 PM, Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church, 5299 Jamesville Rd., DeWitt (opposite Manlius Pebble Hill School), with discussion afterward. Thanks to Jim MacKillop for letting me preview this film. See 2007 entries on this site for my review of Loach's Wind That Shakes the Barley.