Hunger may have been directed by Rembrandt. At least, he had to be the cinematographer. This film is glorious to watch in all its squalor. Ninety percent of the film is set in the gleaming, industrial Irish institution that is almost comically known as Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (referred to here as just the Maze). The other ten percent of the film takes place outside the prison walls, just long enough to depict the justifiably paranoid lifestyle of one of the British guards.
The rancor that comes with watching Steve McQueen’s incredible Hunger is almost tangible in your living room. Yet everything about this film screams beautiful new-Asian cinema, such as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, (I’m re-appropriating the term “new-Asian cinema” for myself here, because I’d rather a film like Poetry take that credit, than the recent run of torture-horror flicks that seem to flood the Asian-via-America cinema markets). McQueen’s cinema is about experience. He wants to make you submit to his story when the lights go down. So get your color bars adjusted, fire up the Blu-ray and crank up the volume on the surround.
As McQueen himself says about the film, he wants to take you on a journey through the Maze, but bring you in two different ways. We see the guard as he begins his shift and we also see the new IRA prisoner Davey as he gets processed and immediately refuses to conform to the standards of the prison by not wearing their uniform. He is promptly delivered to his cell, naked, where he finds the walls that hold him in covered in fecal matter and his cellmate starved, unshaven and unwashed.
The incarcerated IRA here are on a no wash protest and so every so often the guards have to pull them from their cells, dragging them to a place in the prison where they can hold them down, cutting their long hair and beards with oversized pairs of shears and subsequently throw them in a bathtub, run a bar of soap over them and drag them back to their cells. Prison life gets worse as the film progresses and another scene depicts riot police called in to basically beat, and at turns violently and degradingly search the prisoners.
After a brutal and somehow expected killing of the British prison guard whom we are initially introduced to, comes the best scene in the film: a nearly twenty-minute, unedited, static two-shot where a priest attempts to convince the prisoner Bobby Sands not to start the hunger strike he’s planned out in his head. As opposed to other IRA-prisoner-led hunger strikes, Sands has the fortitude to envision this one happening on a more cataclysmic scale, basically tiering the order of the men who strike, so the strike can never really cease. The purpose of his tiered approach is to create more opportunity for serious casualty if the the Queen doesn’t respond, whereas in previous hunger strikes, all the men just stop eating at the same time in a more clumsy act of rebellion.
It’s a hugely integral scene to the film and a hugely integral moment in Sands’ life. His conversation with the priest is at turns witty and devastating as it soon becomes clear that his martyrdom is inevitable. Aside from the clear aesthetic reasons for shooting the scene this way – there’s no chance for the viewer to escape the inevitability of his fate as Bobby virtually confesses his premeditated suicide to a priest – it’s the filmmaker’s tool for catching you up from the entire first third of the film which had little to no dialogue. It’s now also been touted as the longest shot in a film.*
From this point on, we are forced to watch as Bobby destroys his body from the inside out. While the first third of the film is rooted in a sense of gritty, British cinema realism, the middle is a segue with priest and confessor that stands out as a slice of American independent cinema from the 70s, and the final stretch of Hunger is almost Bergman-esque avant-garde.
There’s an amazing sequence where Sands, virtually immobile, bed-ridden, malnourished and delusional, follows a crack in the ceiling above him all the way down to the wall, where the crack ends and the POV framing reveals himself as a young ghost, standing there, staring back at him. The film goes out on a relatively high note even though while he disintegrates in real life, we watch him as a lean, young man, racing through the woods near a river (which we’re familiar with from a story he tells the priest). Abruptly, he stops dead in his tracks. The foliage around him is a deep emerald green and the water of the river flows alongside. He looks over his shoulder behind him.
It’s really the perfect ending to his life.
Bobby Sands was not the only prisoner to die during this hunger strike. Nine other men did as well, ultimately prompting British government to yield to the IRA’s demands. During the strike Sands was also elected to British Parliament representing two counties in Ireland.
Editorial Note: As I was scouring the ‘net for some good stills from the film, I came across a Guardian article from November 2008 where – what did I find but this pictorial comparison of McQueen’s film to a Rembrandt painting! I find this extremely interesting, in that, when I began writing this and that first sentence came out where I compared the images in Hunger to Rembrandt, I had not heard of any comparisons as such, and I thought anyone who read mine would think me merely proselytizing on the side of the critic-debate that Hunger is more concerned with style over substance. While, granted, it is very stylistic, it’s not so in a way that I believe detracts from the film. As I detailed above, I find the film to be inspired by various cinematic movements and styles and I feel like it blends them all together to create a portrait of a man that surely could not be summed up in the most straight forward of terms.