Saturday, 1 November 2008

hunger (d. steve mcqueen, w. mcqueen & enda walsh)

There was only one other audience member at the Coronet for the afternoon screening of Hunger. A man who chuckled to himself for no apparent reason, before engaging on muttered asides. He was four rows behind me, and when I turned around to look at him I thought for a moment it might have been McQueen himself, chuckling at moments in his artfully grim movie which no-one else was going to find funny. It wasn't, and in the end the asides began to feel a little menacing, and I moved to a seat further back.

It's slightly strange being part of an audience of two in a cinema, and as the film opened, I thought for the first time ever about the notion of cinema as prison - a confined space to which you are sentenced for the duration. For crimes you may or may not have committed. Whilst this is, natch, a fanciful, almost Frenchian piece of thinking, it's also testament to the tactile effectiveness of McQueen's film-making. Sound, colour and cinematography are used with the kind of inventiveness you'd hope an artist would provide to convey the realities of being in the Maze prison of the early 80's (and the pertinence of this realisation in terms of Guantanamo, Baghram etc, whilst never stated feels implicit). The director uses long takes and sparse dialogue to assemble (more Frenchiness) a powerful rendition of an inhumane system seeking to break its inhabitants' spirit and resistance.

The film's narrative structure is refreshingly unorthodox. The opening section describes the dirty protest and the state violence. At first it seems as though two stories are going to be counterpointed, as the life of a prison officer is dovetailed with the experiences of a new IRA prisoner. However, once Bobby Sands is introduced, he gradually comes to displace everyone else. The prison officer is shot, without the audience ever having got to know him, and the young prisoner fades out of the narrative. The film hinges on a long dialogue sequence between Sands and a Catholic priest, as the IRA man confesses, if you like, his reasons for embarking on his hunger strike. I'd been told this sequence, mostly filmed as a single take, is seventeen minutes long, and some had suggested that was pushing it. Walsh's writing is showcased, a bit like a Roach drum solo in a Coltrane track. It feels as though the intention is to create some kind of dissonance, in suddenly introducing so many words in a film of so few. This won't be everyone's cup of tea (dissonance isn't), but I found myself gripped. Apart from the fact it's a great piece of writing, McQueen's use of Walsh's words accentuates their value. Whilst McQueen's filmmaking has built up a visceral picture of the Maze, words are needed to convey the political context and also, to an extent, the psychological motivation for men to live in their own shit, as well as starve themselves to death. Language can do this in a way that images can't, and if the film has succeeded in taking you into the Maze, then you want to know why you're there, and the revelation of this information is as gripping as anything else in the film.

The final section of the narrative deals with Sands' hunger and death, and is entirely focused on him. Perhaps oddly, this felt less compelling that what had gone before. The priest in the dialogue accuses Sands of seeking martyrdom, an accusation he refutes, but the film flirts with imagery which comes straight out of the Christian iconography of sainthood. One scene in particular, when Sands' withered body is carried by a large prison officer, looks like a Pieta, and the film's concentration on the remarkable transformation of the actor Michael Fassbender's body seemed something of a distraction. (Hints of De Niro as La Motta and other noted pieces of body-acting). The transformation impies a mutation from the physical to a spiritual state, offering echoes of portraits of Saint Sebastian, the film dwelling on the Sands's sores and emaciation rather than any psychological suffering.

No matter how this last sequence affects the viewer, it's further testament to Hunger's broad agenda. This is a film about politics, but also history. The dirty protest and the hunger strikes that accompanied it are distant memories today. The IRA campaign, which for all of my youth was considered the greatest threat to civil life in the UK, has been almost forgotten. As well as reminding us of how our fears have been replaced, McQueen's film and Walsh's script remind us how it was always a part of the political process that what exactly was going on in the Maze, and who these people were, remained obscure. (Again the resonances with recent history are powerful.) Hunger opens the doors of the prison and lets us in on an old nightmare.

The number of levels McQueen's film operates on reveals a filmmaker who's both ambitious and dexterous. In addition to its political-historical agenda, Hunger is also an exploration of the relative and complementary potency of language and image, twin components of cinema's art. There are some points of comparison with Schnabel's Diving Bell and Butterfly, another piece created by an artist taking advantage of the full palette of cinema and using the restrictions of imprisonment as a creative impetus. It is to be hoped that Hunger gets good audiences, in spite of its challenging material and intransigent artistry, which won't be to everyone's tastes.

The McQueen lookalike received a phone call somewhere towards the end of the long dialogue. He got up and ambled to the back of the cinema where he took the call, making arrangements for his future. I don't think he was talking to Spielberg or Weinstein, but lets hope that someone with some film-money is talking to the real McQueen, because it will be fascinating to see what he does next.

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