30 December 2008

HUNGER (Dir. Steve McQueen, 2008, UK) - 'You're afraid of life'

The Northern Ireland conflict or ‘The Troubles’ as they have been referred to in the mass media has been a complex and problematic political issue to represent on screen without somebody, usually the director, being criticised for a lack of impartiality. Though the British media represented the troubles as a sectarian conflict between the Catholic minority and the empowered Protestant majority who took their orders directly from Whitehall, the IRA, the Republican movement and supposed terrorist organisation, took a contrary ideological approach that interpreted the conflict as a Marxist class struggle. Under the presidency of Bill Clinton, the possibility of some kind of peaceful settlement climbed back up the agenda of international politics and the victory of New Labour unveiled a chance for Tony Blair to develop his position as a credible political statesman.

As Clinton and Blair tried to negotiate a new settlement between the disillusioned political parties, a cycle of Hollywood films tried to probe the complexity of the Northern Ireland conflict by tending to focus on the effects of terrorism as manifested by the IRA in films like ‘Patriot Games’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’. Most of these studio financed pictures were aimed at a mainstream audience and usually featured ‘A’ list Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford. The producer and director, Jim Sheridan, was extremely influential in trying to make films about the Northern Ireland conflict in a way that was beneficial to both audience tastes and the people and places being represented.

The commercial and critical high point of the wave of Northern Ireland themed films of the 90s was Jim Sheridan’s overwrought but moving examination of the wrongful imprisonment of The Guildford Four. ‘In the Name of the Father’ is a very manipulative film that is anchored by Daniel Day Lewis’ astounding performance as Gerry Conlon, an individual who sees the conflict from a number of overlapping and contradictory perspectives whilst in prison. His eventual fight for justice is seen very much as a noble, humanist cause and the catharsis Sheridan evokes at the end of the film is unquestionably sentimental and melodramatic. However, the film was a worldwide commercial success and even though the script was criticised for fabricating certain elements of the truth, it nevertheless empowered Sheridan to go and produce the much grittier and powerful ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 2002.

Universally acclaimed for its unflinching and frightening level of realism, ‘Bloody Sunday’ was commissioned by ITV to commemorate the anniversary of the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre in which British paratroopers indiscriminately gunned down and killed 13 unarmed protesters who were marching through Derry as part of a peaceful Northern Ireland Civil Rights protest. On its release, the film was criticised by the conservative elements of the British press for demonising the British paratroopers and presenting a biased account of events. Following on from ‘Bloody Sunday’, Sheridan and Greengrass reunited for the equally powerful indictment of New Labour failings in ‘Omagh’, another television production that dramatised a catastrophic bombing and the affects on the victims of the community who begin a campaign to uncover an ugly truth about a British foreign policy which had remained virtually the same under a New Labour government.

In 2006, UK film maker Ken Loach directed ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’, a period film that documented the origins and evolution of the Irish Republican movement, humanising the Republican volunteers and showing great empathy as they are transformed into a guerrilla resistance movement of assured political integrity. Like Greengrass before him, Loach too was another easy target for the right wing tabloid newspapers who accused him of romanticising the IRA and condoning terrorism as a form of resistance. Ironically, it went on to become Ken Loach’s most commercially successful film at the UK box office, and it is undoubtedly his finest film to date. ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ walked away with the Palme D’Or in 2006, an indication of how loved Loach is in Europe and particularly France as a superior film maker. A similar fate befell Steve McQueen’s directorial debut this year at Cannes where his film ‘Hunger’ was awarded the Camera D’Or, receiving a rapturous critical praises.

What strikes most about a film like ‘Hunger’ is how thoughtfully McQueen transforms a prison movie into an expressionistic painting, down playing the ideological content of a film so that the highly politicised subject matter of the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze prison never drowns out the real voice of this story, that of Bobby Sands, a political prisoner. McQueen strips away the traditional associations we have with a film about Northern Ireland by steering clear of the ‘realist’ trap and embracing his own art fuelled background. ‘Hunger’ seems like an experiment but it is a successful one in how McQueen focuses on the textures and surfaces of the agonising torture Sands is made to suffer at the hands of a nihilistic prison institution. Other then the opening, execution and flashback sequences, ‘Hunger’ is a frighteningly claustrophobic film as the camera rarely ventures outside the space occupied by Bobby Sands. The maddening sense of estrangement is deepened by McQueen’s strikingly sterile and blank compositions, repeatedly emphasising the sickly, lifeless colours of the prison; the excrement that adorns the walls of the prison cells is perhaps the only visible sign left of human existence.

But what separates and distinguishes ‘Hunger’ from many of the UK films released in 2008 and other films about Northern Ireland is the detailed and perhaps even obsessive attention to sound. This is very much a film about ‘listening’ and harks back to a Bressonian rigour for sound. The sound design by Paul Davies, having worked on UK films like ‘Bullet Boy’ and ‘The Proposition’, is yet another expressionistic achievement, utilising a rich, densely layered series of sounds that become much more significant in the final section as Bobby Sands is reduced to a skeletal, bleeding spectre of death.

The violence inflicted upon the prisoners is not physical for McQueen, it comes through listening, an element of cinema which is much more powerful when trying to make the spectator feel the emotion of violence. It is understandable why McQueen relies on sound so significantly throughout ‘Hunger’ especially when you consider we are living in an age of increasing desensitisation to violence. The violence and death brought on by the sanitised nature of 24 hour news channels has blurred the line between film violence and the kind of casual violence we encounter on a daily basis. McQueen’s formal emphasis on sound is magnificently handled and his ability to make us listen and hear the many forms of violence perpetrated by British imperialism puts into sharp perspective the level of normalisation we all share when ‘watching’ an act of violence being depicted on screen.

The issue of morality, politics and religion is distilled into one daring take between Bobby Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) that lasts for 17 minutes. Much of the ideological conviction of the film rests largely on the nature of this conversation, with Sands adamantly trying to defend his suicidal mindset as Cunningham’s Father Moran argues rationally for a political compromise. Though this decisive moment becomes purely theatrical in its formal execution, it is performed with a conversational sincerity and camaraderie that underlines the infinitely futile and self destructive nature of a generational conflict.

Thatcher’s presence looms large over the film, but unlike Shane Meadow’s ‘This is England’ in which Thatcher makes an immediate appearance in the opening montage, here she is relegated very much to an abstract position as McQueen selects sound bites from her various responses to the demands of the prisoners by juxtaposing her words to tracking shots of the cold, empty prison, proving the point that prisoners like Bobby Sands were effectively worthless and insignificant in the context of Britain trying to maintain its grip over Northern Ireland. Steve McQueen is at the start of something wonderful and his career as a film maker looks set to be very promising and exciting.


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