Passion play

Steve McQueen’s (no, not that Steve McQueen) Hunger was the winner of last year’s Camera D’Or at Cannes (given to best first feature.) The film focuses on the life of Bobby Sands, a convicted IRA terrorist incarcerated in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. After about 40 minutes of meandering introduction and multiple characters introduced, focused on briefly then almost forgotten, the film tightens it’s focus on Sands’ decision to lead a hunger strike with the goal of gaining “Political prisoner” status for himself and his fellow incarcerated IRA comrades.

First off, I have to say this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. While the camera may be filming open bed sores, maggots crawling on the hand of a sleeping man or a split image of a British cop crying while his mates brutally beat a naked prisoner, they do so in a way that makes you want to continue watching because of the impressive artistry of the shot. Early scenes of a prisoner’s hand shot in close up playing with a fly on the broken window grate of his cell and a later scene of the same prisoner, naked, standing in front of the same while diffused light and small snowflakes brace his lithe frame. McQueen has been known for some years as an accomplished visual artist and, as with fellow visual masters Anton Corbjin (with “Control”) and Julian Schnabel (with “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) their eye for crafting a striking image is impeccable.

Unfortunately, this film left me strangely cold and unmoved for the most part, but most especially for the main character. Sands is portrayed as an idealized martyr who displays almost no true human emotions throughout most of the film. Never does he appear scared of dying or show any fear of the abuse he receives or care about the sorrow of the loving family he leaves behind. He’s portrayed not unlike Jesus in Mel Gibson’s torture-porn classic “The Passion of the Christ.” Like the man/god portrayed in Gibson film, Sands is not a man but rather an icon, so when McQueen attempts to generate pathos in my heart I felt none. I could not identify with the man in the least because no man can be that hard in the face of their own death. In fact the most sympathetic character is that of the unnamed prison guard played by Stuart Graham, an actor who feels familiar but apparently has done largely TV work. The torment in his eyes as he slowly smokes a cigarette after forcibly cutting the hair and beard and scrubbing the violent body of Sands is wonderful.

I must also say that there is a very very impressive piece of stage acting in the scene wherein Bobby and a priest discuss his motivations and the possible effects of his hunger strike. This is by far the most talky scene in a film where 20 minutes often pass without one line of dialogue. The fact that the film can say more in it’s silence than in much of it’s words is a tribute to the skills of the editors and the director. I think McQueen is a very talented technical director and I look forward to his future films. I only hope that he learns that brutality and unwavering stridency, while admirable to watch on screen, cannot hold a candle to the depiction of a type of humanity that one can actually relate to. As Sands character says to the priest but doesn’t portray, we’re only human.

For those looking for a better film about the struggle for Irish independence and a portrayal of how real people react to the horror of armed struggle, I would without reservation point you towards “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” – perhaps my favorite film of 2006 and one that was unfortunately overlook by myself as well as many in the US when it was first released.

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