“The Troubles” - what a calm, contemplative way of describing the dire and often deadly confrontation between the government of England and the independence movement in Ireland. In truth, the conflict was (if past tense is even appropriate) a complicated collection of competing ethnic, religious, and socio-political agendas wrapped up in decades of hatred, bloodshed, violence, and vengeance. As a subject, it’s too extreme, even for the most accomplished filmmaker. The scope alone would render any realization small and inconsequential. While he’s worked in the medium before, first time filmmaker Steve McQueen is new to the realm of the feature length domain - and to make matters more tenuous, he’s taking on the story of one of the “Troubles” most important figures - Bobby Sands.
Yet for all the pitfalls he could face, the artist turned director has delivered the astonishing, masterful Hunger. In a minimalist way which uses visuals to explain the deepest ideological divides and a single, 17 minute take to clarify all motives, McQueen condenses four decades of fighting into a single, epic overture. We watch as British guards go about their daily lives, anxious about being the victim of IRA sponsored crime while committing the kind of atrocities that earned them a spot in such a dead pool. We see the prisoners’ outrageous responses, from smearing feces on their cell walls to refusing to bathe or maintain personal hygiene. Without going into unnecessary expositional detail, McQueen shows us how bodily fluids were used as protest, how messages were transported among inmates and their loved one, and why Sands stood up to a English policy which deprived he and his fellow inmates of their basic rights and “political prisoner” status.
Certainly, some of the earliest images come at us free of almost mandatory context. We wonder who the characters are, picking up bits and pieces of personal information along the way. Dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, individuals interacting within an assumed set of facts. When we first meet Sands, it’s almost by accident. Physically beaten and restrained by the British guards before being taken into an area for an obligatory bathe, the animalistic nature of his responses offset the well considered conversation he later has with a visiting priest. During this spellbinding sequence, McQueen locks the camera down to capture the pair in profile. Bantering back and forth, mixing clear indications of position with occasional jokes, it’s one of the few cases where performance, previous visual clues, cinematic style, and the given content come together to almost singlehandedly restructure the film.
Indeed, Hunger can be looked at as a nightmare in three sections. Act one puts us smack dab in the middle of the “No Wash” protest. Part two takes us through the creation of the hunger strike. And the last segment shows, in horrific detail, the toll the stand takes on Sand. The sequences where open sores are dabbed with ointment, when an emaciated and skeletal man is carried like a pile of old rags from room to room, are heartbreakingly excruciating. As McQueen’s camera lingers on these images of pain, actor Michael Fassbender (who went on a doctor -ontrolled crash diet to look the part) registers the emotional will - however so slight, sometimes - that made Sands a martyr for the cause.
But if Hunger were just set-up, followed by suffering, we probably wouldn’t find it so fascinating. Because McQueen keeps things so closed off and isolated, because he lets us in little by little to what the “Troubles” mean to both sides of the conflict, we soon find ourselves locked within the dissension. It’s hard to champion either ideology, especially when Hunger narrows it down to a plaintive power struggle where brutality and hostility have usurped rationality. There are comments that mock the UK approach, while the terrorism employed by the IRA is explained, but never excused. In the end, we see how personal the battle has become. As Sands dies slowly, an assassination is carried out that’s shocking in its coldness and casualness.
In fact, it’s clear that Hunger is meant as both a testament to, and a condemnation of, everything the Troubles stood for in 1981. As tensions would rise, ebb, implode and then slowly ease (right now, The Belfast Agreement of 1998 keeps things relatively quiet and, dare it be said, peaceful), such outsized actions appear insane. We are meant to look at the constant beatings, the strong arm stances and immovable moral coding and smirk at how arcane it all seems. Yet Hunger also has a place in our post 9/11 mindset, a Thatcher dense reminder that both sides of an issue can take actions that lead to nothing but death and destruction. The perceived power in such a scheme is almost always dissipated by the lack of prudence inferred from the outside.
All politics aside, Hunger definitely announces McQueen as a filmmaker to watch. Like painter turned auteur Julian Schnabel with last year’s sensational The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the value of being an artist first, a director second is showcased here. Both men understand the inherent value in images, in keeping things simply, straightforward, and stark. There is no need for messy details or busy art direction. Instead, by carefully choosing what you intend to show, by making sure every picture within your film frame counts, you have the potential of making something truly special. Like the story of a former magazine editor who suffered a paralysis so severe he could only communicated by blinking his eye, the isolated torment and agonizing end to Bobby Sands’ life sounds like the stuff of stifling, stilted cinema. Hunger, and the man behind its making, proves just the opposite.