Monday, December 08, 2008

A Descent Into Hell

Hunger (Dir: Steve McQueen, 2008)

NB This review necessarily reveals details of shocking scenes within the film. If you’ve not yet seen it, and would prefer to experience the full impact of these scenes (as uncomfortable as the are), probably best to read my thoughts later...

Whilst I’m certainly not averse to difficult, tough and challenging films, I still shied away from approaching Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen’s debut feature. A film about Republican ‘dirty protests’ and hunger striking in the notorious Maze prison in the early 1980s, ‘Hunger’ is amongst the most brutal and unflinching films I have ever seen. Some see the film as an hagiography of Bobby Sands and therefore accuse it of Republican bias. Whilst the film does make some strange judgements, I don’t quite agree with this assessment and I suspect many of the tabloid whingers have not even seen the film.

More controversial for many people will be the film’s 15 certificate. I’m not one for censorship and, indeed, I feel the film’s style and content necessitate its graphic images and sensory overload, but surely the BBFC has lost its marbles. If the film contained sexual content that was correspondingly explicit, it would no doubt get an 18 certificate straight away. If you’ll forgive me for some uncharacteristic moralising, it now seems reasonable to expect that teenagers might consider extreme savagery and brutality to be the more everyday human activity.

McQueen drags us into a murky, thoroughly unpleasant but devastatingly real world with this film. The extraordinary opening sequence shows a prison guard beginning his morning routine – mundane and casual in every sense save for the need to check his car for explosive devices before leaving. We follow him into the prison, which McQueen recreates with painstaking attention to detail. It’s not just the realist and uncompromising images that succeed – it’s also the film’s powerful sound design, which is every bit as intricate, conveying much of the tension, claustrophobia and anger without recourse to language.

Another audacious move is the film’s unconventional structure, which eschews narrative in favour of shifting protagonists and conveying a broader sense of fear and rage. Michael Fassbender, playing Bobby Sands in a way that takes method acting to new extremes, doesn’t even appear until thirty minutes into the picture. The ‘hagiography’ argument therefore completely ignores the film’s initial perspective on other prisoners and their disgusting conditions – the maggot-infested food, the walls smeared with their own excrement, the confined shared cells. These scenes are suitably stark but also grimly compelling. Whilst it’s undoubtedly painful to watch, it’s also impossible to remove one’s gaze from McQueen’s ingeniously constructed images.

We see the prisoners, naked through their refusal to wear the clothes of criminals, forcibly washed and beaten with truncheons in almost unwatchably confrontational scenes. These convey both the danger faced by the prison establishment and the abject humiliation and degradation of the protesting prisoners. Yet it’s arguable that McQueen’s film is more effective when it isn’t working so hard to be visceral and intense – its most memorable scenes include a lengthy take of a cleaner sweeping pools of urine back under the prisoners’ cell doors or close-up shots of a guard’s bloodied knuckles soaked in water.

The film undertakes a sudden and somewhat unexpected change of style and mood with the almost casual insertion of a 22 minute sequence of dialogue between Sands and a Priest, played superbly by Liam Cunningham, attempting to convince him of the futility of the hunger strike. This is expertly written by McQueen and Enda Walsh, and the fixed position of the camera, showing both figures in profile and in partial shadow for 16 minutes, maintains a detached and dispassionate gaze. Whilst this is every bit as artistic and rigorous as the rest of the film, it does represent a major and uncomfortable stylistic shift.

Perhaps it is inserted to offer a nugget of political context, which is otherwise only providing by some text at the film’s opening and conclusion and the droning voice of Margaret Thatcher refusing to countenance the protestors’ demands for political status. Whatever the purpose, its impact is to demonstrate Sands’ lack of respect for individual human life, even if it feels rather like a short film within a film. It’s also important to recognise that the scene’s effect is not stagey or theatrical but rather profoundly cinematic, in spite of the rigidity of its parameters.

Perhaps some credence is given to the film’s critics by the admission at the end of the film that more prison officers died during the protests than hunger strikers, yet this is never really made clear. There is one horrible, unsettling scene in which a guard is assassinated whilst visiting his ailing mother in a nursing home – but I felt this scene made an error in suddenly removing us from the seventh circle of hell that is the prison itself.

The film’s closing sequences, depicting Sands’ self-imposed starvation with unflinching honesty, show the vulnerability of the human body in squirm-inducing detail. These scenes don’t imbue Sands’ disintegration with grandeur, but rather simply show his gradual ebbing in a very dispassionate way.

This is, at least, until McQueen makes a fundamental aesthetic mistake. The scenes of the younger Bobby as a ghostly onlooker over his death bed and then flashbacks to him cross country running during his final gasps seem rather trite, and contrast markedly with the austerity of what has gone before. The shots of crows flocking together and flying away seem rather crudely symbolic, and really belong in a lesser film. What a shame that these final images conspire to make Sands’ death seem like a passionate martyrdom. Far better to see the protest as a desperate act whereby the abuse of the body is the only means left to achieve recognition, regardless of whether the cause is noble or not. The eleme

The more I think about this final lapse of taste, the less I consider ‘Hunger’ to be the masterpiece some claim it is, although it is certainly an auspicious debut full of real artistry and power. I suspect that McQueen does not intend ‘Hunger’ to be a political film at all. The film seems to go some way towards rejecting Aristotle’s argument that human beings are political animals. In these depraved, terrible environments it seems that any concept of rationality is abandoned in favour of what, for most people, will constitute unimaginable brutality. With such disrespect for humanity on both sides of the argument, the politics somehow become irrelevant. I usually have a strong faith in basic human decency – that most people are, in essence, good, whatever mistakes they may make. Exiting the cinema after watching ‘Hunger’, with its total debasement of human life, privacy, dignity and trust, I felt this basic principle had been shaken, perhaps even destroyed. This is testament to the film’s overpowering force, in spite of its flaws.

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