By Nneka Luke
Visual artist and award-winning director Steve McQueen has finally made his mark on international cinema with his 2013 release, “12 Years A Slave”, a controversial and unflinching look at slavery in America in the mid-1800s through the eyes and experiences of Solomon Northup. Having already established his visual arts career to significant acclaim (winner of the prestigious Turner Prize, represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, and named Commander of the British Empire, and more), the British-Grenadian artist has created a space to make films on his exacting terms.
This series will review each of McQueen’s three feature films: “Hunger (2008), “Shame” (2010) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013).
Review - "Hunger" (2008) by Steve McQueen
"Hunger" is a character study of what men are capable of in extreme circumstances. It may be the film that brought Michael Fassbender to prominence (pre-dated only by his star-making role as Stelios in the ensemble “300”), and his portrayal of Bobby Sands is inimitable. But what stands out is the director's focus on not just Bobby Sands and his actions and motivations, but also on those of other characters who do not have the benefit of being named—the prison officer, the new prisoner, and the riot squad officer.
A film sparse with dialogue except at the climactic face off, “Hunger” depends on lighting, silence, visceral sounds and the raw emotion of the characters to convey the importance of this moment in time.
In 1981, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have been branded a terrorist organisation by Great Britain, and the Iron Lady remains steadfast in her refusal to identify paramilitary prisoners with political status; she names them criminals.
At the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, where the film is almost entirely set, gifted director and visual artist Steve McQueen plays out the drama of men willing to do anything for their beliefs.
The film opens with the prison officer, a grim man whose spirit seems heavy with the tasks he carries out daily. His scenes are quiet and almost poetic, belied only by the angry bruises on his knuckles and the worried look on his wife's face as he leaves the house in the morning.
The scene that haunted me after I watched "Hunger" for the first time was the prison officer standing outside, leaning on a wall, sweat staining his prison-issue shirt despite the cold, smoking a cigarette as the snow fell lightly, standing out plainly against his dark blue pants. In other scenes his rage against the prisoners is unleashed; here, freshly bloodied knuckles and the restrained yet pained look on his face only suggest it. No words were said, but this scene spoke volumes about deeds done, while suggesting that in his soul, he may be conflicted about his role in the prison.
The new IRA prisoner is the vehicle through which we are introduced to the Maze Prison from the perspective of the inmates. He declares, as undoubtedly all his brothers did before him, that he is a political prisoner and demands his rights. This goes unacknowledged and he strips down, joining the other prisoners in the "blanket and unwashed" protest. Studying his movements, he seems young, unsure, scared, not bearing the battle-worn hatred of his cellmate and of Bobby Sands himself.
There is a tender scene where he stands at the high window, pushing his hand through to touch snow, while allowing a fly to walk on his hand in a quiet and unexpected moment. The humanity here suggests sensitivity in the prisoner that his captors never see, and don't care about.
After the prisoners - instigated by their leader Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender in a career-defining role) - destroy the contents of their newly-cleaned cells, the riot squad is called in to mete out punishment. In the back of the van, the camera immediately finds the young and clearly wired officer, whose nervous energy jumps off the screen, and is juxtaposed with the steely reserve of his older, presumably more experienced counterparts. The brutality of what follows their entry into the prison is best experienced rather than described. But the brilliant framing of the riot squad pummeling Bobby Sands on the left of a wall, while the affected young man, crying, leans against the wall in the snow, is poignant and a reminder that this is a complex story with few easy answers.
Apart from the self-inflicted anguish of Bobby Sands and the 9 IRA men who died during the hunger strike, the title suggests hunger for change, for freedom, perhaps for all the characters mentioned above. In a time of extremes, what are you wiling to do for your cause?
"I have my beliefs, and in all its simplicity, that is the most powerful thing," Bobby Sands declares to the priest during the pivotal scene that falls half way through the film. Though the priest tries to convince him otherwise, Bobby is prepared to die to show his determination to the British government.
Fassbender proves himself a fearless actor, from the moment he first explodes on the screen, to the riveting medium shot where he shares ideals and cigarettes with the priest, to his quiet and agonising end, wasting away in the hospital. McQueen as director elicits gut-wrenching performances from all his key actors, making this feel, on second watching, more like an ensemble piece than strictly a Bobby Sands story.
As a record of a moment in British-Irish history, the broad strokes are certainly accurate. As an example of film as art, "Hunger" excels, imprinting images of despair, violence and beauty on your brain for some time to come.
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