Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Reel Retrospective: Hunger (2008): A Picture that Speaks a Thousand Words (Approx)

Images, not words. That would seem to be the central conceit of Steve McQueen's (no, not that one) 2008 drama Hunger, based on the 1981 IRA hunger strike. That isn't surprising, given McQueen's background (he's an artist and Turner Prize winner); what is remarkable though is just how much information he transmits in the absence of dialogue.

From the first scene, where we see an outwardly calm, domesticated man bath his sore knuckles in water then check the underside of his car, all the while watched over by his nervous wife, two things become immediately clear. One he is some sort of enforcer given over to acts of brutality; the other is his life in danger due to his employ. True enough, a few scenes on, this seemingly transitory character, a guard named Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham), is our access into the squalid horror of Maze Prison, where the strike was to take place

McQueen has consequently put the themes of his drama into play: in conflict, everyone is a victim, from the guards to the prisoners on down. It's a message that strikes a deeper human chord than Ms Thatcher's cold, finite claims heard blaring from a radio: 'There is no such thing as political terrorism'. The focus isn't on terrorism itself but the lasting fallout from it. The message may be trite but McQueen's execution is anything but, refusing to dictate when it can instead puzzle or provoke with an ambiguous image.

Stage two of the drama, focusing on Bobby Sands' role in spearheading the strike, actually takes a while to emerge from out of the film's foggy morality, the viewer having been immersed beforehand in the painterly horrors of life at Maze. Two prisoners (to whom we are introduced before Sands even enters the picture) smear excrement on the walls in protest, only for the festering layers to be blasted off gradually by a water cannon; urine seeps out beneath cell doors in criss-crossing patterns across the corridors; the crunching of riot gear reaches a cacophonous pitch as armed guards lay into the prisoners with horrific force.

Then we arrive at the film's tour-de-force centrepiece: a 17 minute unbroken take of a prolonged verbal joust between Sands (hauntingly assayed by a ravaged Michael Fassbender) and a jaded, cynical priest, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), rife with theological underpinnings as each man vies to stake his claim to God and the world. Deriving all its power precisely from the break with the rigourously maintained quiet of before, Sands chooses to seal his own fate while Father Moran can only offer altruistic platitudes in return.

Akin to an insect preserved in layers of amber, this sole scene of extended dialogue is contained between the horrifically beautiful opening and closing scenes, Sands' emaciated body in the final stages eventually slipping into nothingness as he returns to the childhood memory that shaped his political mindset. It's a poetic portrait of a terrible tragedy.

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