This year’s Cannes Film Festival saw an unprecedented display of new British cinema. Along with Terrence Davies’ ‘Of Time and The City’ and Duane Hopkins’ ‘Better Things’, ‘Hunger’ — Steve McQueen’s portrayal of the end days of Irish Republican activist Bobby Sands — represented a healthy British industry, rich in ideas and authenticity.
‘Hunger’ offers little back-story. Other than an introduction detailing the date and the ongoing demands of Republican prisoners to be granted special category status, the audience is afforded but a sparse and subtle context. It opens with the morning routine of a prison guard: he soaks his bloodied knuckles, eats and checks his car. From the outset, we are presented with a still, exacting realism. Crumbs bounce on a napkin, snow falls on the knuckles we just saw soaked.
Within these scenes the narrative progresses gradually, the events occurring in the vacuum of the prison observed as if through a microscope. With the entrance of a new prisoner Davey, played curiously by the rakish Brian Milligan, the attention turns on the inmates in the midst of the ‘Dirty Protest’ wherein prisoners famously refused to slop out and smeared their cell walls with excrement. There is a fine scene where the camera tracks the hallways — the piss and bile freshly mopped — as Margaret Thatcher denies the Prisoners their desired Political status in the Commons, her voice imbued with an exacting, lofty prudence.
The audience is first introduced to Bobby Sands before he is brutally ‘washed’ by the prison guards. The violence in these scenes is visceral. When his hair and beard is cut by a large pair of fabric scissors and his head is mashed up against the edge of a bathtub, his pathetic writhing is infectious. The resulting shot, where Sands’ face is cut apart and captured against the jet black of the prison floor, is the most beautiful of the film.
Half-way through the picture there is a long stretch of dialogue between Sands and a Priest from his old neighbourhood. It represents the ideological and moral centre of the film, with the Priest attempting to persuade Sands of the ineffectiveness of hunger striking and Sands offering a detailed, moving monologue in return.
McQueen doesn’t favour redundant cuts and this scene has been much examined for its reliance on an almost static vantage for twenty minutes. Michael Fassbender, as Sands, is eloquent and barbaric, his fable offering considerable insight into his motivations. The final stretch of the film deals solely with Sands’ strike and his resulting death. It is utterly silent, allowing the viewer to conclude what he will as to the heroism or moral integrity of the central figure.
The film deserves praise for a number of reasons. It is rooted in a deeply controversial period in recent political history yet refuses to promote a movement. Sands could easily have been portrayed as a martyr-demigod, railing against a Westminster that could reasonably have met his demands — or as callous and proud, unrepentant for the loss of life at the hands of Republicanism.
McQueen’s clarity of vision is to be commended. He has managed to frame great visual beauty within the historical severity of the ‘plot’. The work is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ — a sensitive study in the thoughts of soldiers at Guadalcanal.
‘Hunger’ is a film of measured stillness, a beatific and singularly humane picture. Steve McQueen has made an important film concerning a critical saga in British-Irish history.