Contact & Links

RSS Feed



Valid CSS


All contents © 2009
by Mark Jenkins,
unless otherwise noted.

Design by Smallpark


APRIL 3, 2009

Body Work

Steve McQueen's Hunger is a masterwork of physical observation, but with a greater agenda.

By Mark Jenkins

"BEAUTY IS TRUTH, truth beauty," Keats wrote, words that incongruously came to me while watching emaciated Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands fall to the floor, almost dead after starving himself for 66 days. An utterly modern film by an utterly modern filmmaker, Hunger has no obvious kinship with 19th-century romanticism. Yet Amsterdam-based British director Steve McQueen holds to a contemporary version of romanticism's aesthetic ideals. And Hunger — stark, harsh, painful — is a work of beauty.

After a prologue that wordlessly depicts the routine of a man (Stuart Graham) who wears a uniform to work, Hunger observes the arrival of new prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) at the infamous Maze Prison, outside Belfast. As Margaret Thatcher's voice vows that "there will be no political status" for members of the IRA, Gillen refuses the standard prison uniform, and is issued a blanket. The new arrival, now bleeding from the temple as the result of an off-screen assault, is taken to his cell, shared with another naked man. The veteran, like all his fellow IRA prisoners, has smeared the walls of the cell with his own excrement. In the theater, viewers can't smell what Maze was like. But they can see the patterns in the shit, suggesting that the IRA men were, in their way, artists.

Since the film is the feature debut of a Turner Prize-certified video artist, it's only reasonable to expect that Hunger will be a series of tableaux vivant, scenes from "The Troubles" brought to life in the manner of a punkier Peter Greenaway. That assumption proves to be wrong. McQueen doesn't follow the rules of conventional narrative, but his movie is a powerful piece of storytelling that, for all its insistence on the physical, also looks into the soul.

Actually, Hunger looks into only two men's souls: In a 22-minute prison meeting shot with but a few adjustments of camera position, Sands (Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender) discusses his plan for the hunger strike with a friend, disapproving Catholic priest Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). Impeccably scripted by Enda Walsh, the scene is an analysis of morality, but also a brief, honed character study. Amid the bantering, Sands and Moran condense the would-be martyr's motivation to one anecdote. A cross-country runner as a boy, Sands remembers how he once deviated from the course to commit a controversial act that he was sure was correct. "I knew I could take the punishment for the other boys," he concludes.

The sequence is "theatrical" in the best sense, offering the sort of quietly revealing dialogue so rare in the flashy, phony writing that passes for clever in Hollywood these days. Yet the sequence is also effective because it's the central piece in a triptych whose other two panels are so unlike it.

The first section, which depicts the IRA prisoners's "dirty protest" and the guards's reaction to it, plays as performance art. On cue, all the IRA men pour their urine into the hallways; in concert, the guards empty the cells for forced cold-water baths and bloody haircuts, punctuated by beatings. Before each brutal crackdown, an official walks the hall, collecting the ID cards outside the cells. McQueen is fascinated by the details of the resistance and the response, but also by the choreography. When the camera leaves the prison for a quick scene that ends in a sudden act of violence, it's not only the gore that shocks, but also the deviation from the movie's formal structure.

The last chapter is equally visceral, but in a different way. It documents Sands's final days, with Fassbender now more dangerously starved than Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. (A doctor and dietitian for the actor are listed in the credits.) McQueen contrasts the disturbing condition of Sands's bony, sore-covered body with surprisingly conventional elements, notably childhood flashbacks and footage of flittering birds that suggest the dying man's escaping soul. Even intercut with a toilet bowl full of blood, these images have to be counted as romantic.

Hunger gives more time to Irish Republican sentiments than to the loyalist response; aside from Thatcher, the latter is expressed mostly with truncheons. Yet the film is not inherently political, whatever emotions it may evoke in viewers steeped in the story of Northern Ireland or similarly divided places. Or rather, the movie is not about struggle between ideologies, but about conflict between belief and survival. Like a death-craving holy man, Sands takes the punishment to make a point.

Unlike Mel Gibson, McQueen doesn't celebrate the martyr's brutalization. But the director is clearly impressed. Known for work that explores physicality, McQueen clinically observes the dirty protest and Sands's hunger strike, focusing tightly on corporeal details. Yet Hunger finally concerns the life of the mind. It shows how the hunger for righteousness can overcome the body's most urgent demands.

HUNGER — 2008, 96 min; at Landmark E Street.