UK / Ireland, 2008
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 02 October 2008
Source Icon Entertainment 35mm print
Categories The 46th New York Film Festival
Shit, piss, blood, maggots, flesh, bone, saliva: These are the basic elements of Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a film as much concerned with the violence of the body – that which is inflicted against it, and that which it inflicts against itself and others – as it is with the violent modern history of Northern Ireland.
Any new film about the conflict between nationalists (represented by Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA) and unionists in Northern Ireland is bound to raise blood pressures with its reminder of horrors past. The ten years since the Good Friday Agreement have seen a mellowing of mood, and the climate after 9/11 has been intolerant toward anything resembling terrorist violence, but a bloody trail of recrimination and aggression still runs through both sides of this history. These histories are well documented in films about the conflict, of which In the Name of the Father is only the most awarded. But McQueen’s film is not so much an attempt to reopen old wounds as a cinematic portrait of the wound itself, a visceral embodiment of politics at the very cellular level of those who engage in it.
McQueen’s film is the British artist’s first feature after a couple of decades of video and installation work, much of which is also invested in the systems of bodily order and control. His 16mm-to-video piece “Deadpan,” perhaps his most notable work and winner of the 1999 Turner Prize, features the director himself recreating Buster Keaton’s famous falling houseframe bit from Steamboat Bill, Jr.>: McQueen stands in front of a house and its façade falls toward him, threatening to crush him but for the clever placement of an upstairs window through which his body neatly fits. McQueen’s variation on Keaton’s setpiece is that his own deadpan features are minutely detailed in closeup, the slightest of flinches in his face and hands documented in crisp video frames played in slow motion.
In Hunger, we are similarly close to our subjects—close to their nostrils as they breathe in the winter air or smoke a cigarette; close to their hands as they soak bloody knuckles or attempt to capture a blue-bottle through a window grate; close to the flesh of Bobby Sands, his back riddled with bed-sores, his ribs jutting perilously through his skin as he wastes away from willful starvation. In McQueen’s film, the body – not the street or even ideology – is the battlefield on which Bobby Sands and his fellow political prisoners fight for liberation: decorating their cells with murals of feces, secreting notes and contraband in every orifice, channeling their urine into the prison hallways, refusing clothing, refusing to wash, and finally refusing to eat.
This last strike, this last form of bodily dissent, is where the film derives its title and its most visceral impact. It is a tribute (of sorts) to the dedication of the film’s lead, Michael Fassbender, who in fact starved in order to bring Sands’ final act to celluloid. But even if this sort of method acting has become quite fashionable in our age of distorted body-image, and though it is usually the device of lesser actors in lesser films, here Fassbender’s self-starvation feels necessary. It is not merely a means of keeping score with Christian Bale or Robert DeNiro in a game of weight-fluctuation, but an ineluctably physical reality in a film of otherwise staged bodily harm.
This is not to say that these staged scenes lack verisimilitude. For much of the first, brutal, gut-wrenching hour of Hunger the spectator follows a succession of different prisoners as they are beaten, stripped, probed, humiliated, shorn, and beaten again. When we finally alight on Bobby Sands – an articulate, charismatic, and wholly resolute dissident – we are already immersed in a diffuse solidarity. McQueen’s film is not exactly apolitical in this regard; it merely strips away the details of the conflict to its essence—to those who will defend their personal and political freedom at any cost whatsoever, and those who will do their jobs to defend their nation against political violence. The stakes and contours of this debate become apparent at the film’s heart—an utterly jaw-dropping 20-minute take of Sands defending his plans for a hunger strike to an acerbic, but sympathetic priest. But McQueen’s fundamental concern remains the body, and as Sands (and Fassbender) gradually wastes away, the film becomes both more concrete and more abstract. Sands’ self-sacrifice is at once elemental and symbolic, his body a weapon of subversion that is substantial even as it disappears into nothing.
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