Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Hunger, pain


Hunger: 96 minutes. Rated: MA. Director: Steve McQueen. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham

Hunger, screen capAn assessment of Hunger, Steve McQueen's film about Irish republican prisoners of the British government, is illuminated by consideration of another artist, Australian expat singer songwriter Nick Cave.

In life and art Cave has been drawn to the potent, sticky territory where the sacred meets the profane. His essay An introduction to the Gospel of Mark includes a startling recollection that, as a young man with a 'burgeoning interest in violent literature, coupled with an unnamed sense of the divinity in things', Cave was led to the Old Testament, which 'spoke to that part of me that railed and hissed and spat at the world'.

Later he discovered the New Testament, via Mark's 'breathless' gospel, which he describes as:

... a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence. Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such a matter of factness and raw economy they become almost palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.

The dichotomy of the sacred and the profane, evoked so vividly by Cave, is useful for reflecting upon Hunger. At times this is a harrowing, downright disturbing film. Yet it is also beautiful, even magnetic, not just in its imagery (first-time filmmaker McQueen is a visual artist), but also in its positing of something in humanity that transcends cruel, physical reality.

While Cave has a love of narrative, Hunger is a work of image and theme with only the barest of stories to frame it. It is an account of the final days of IRA activist Bobby Sands (Fassbender), during the notorious 'blanket' and 'no wash' protests of 1981, and the subsequent 'hunger' protest during which Sands lost his life.

The republican prisoners were attempting to obtain political status from an unsympathetic Thatcher government. Thus the 'blanket' and 'no wash' protests were characterised by a refusal to wear the uniform of criminals, or to bathe or shave, and the prisoners wore only coarse blankets for modesty and warmth.

Cinematically, one result of this is that the characters remain virtually faceless, concealed behind masks of beard and grime, and undistinguishable in their near-nakedness. They are symbols in McQueen's portrait of violently held ideologies and desperately pursued political ends.

And yet they are recognisably human, their physical vulnerability literally exposed. The brutality they suffer at the hands of the prison guards is visceral and graphic. The first, and most sustained portion of the film deals with these experiences during the 'blanket' and 'no wash' protests. McQueen provides no detail regarding the prisoners' specific crimes, a fact that either exposes his own sympathies, or suggests that he considers the prisoners' history of violence to be a fait acompli.

The second act provides respite both from the violence and the tortuous near-silence (at least verbally) of the first. Yet in its own way, it is just as striking. In it, Sands and a republican priest (Cunningham) debate the morality and political efficacy of Sands' planned hunger strike.

Sands believes that if executed systematically, with one prisoner striking at a time, and a second taking his place upon the death of the first, then the statement will be too powerful not to be heeded.

The priest not only doubts the morality of what is tantamount to suicide, he also believes the strike will be political suicide, as the prisoners would seem to devalue their own lives in the face of a government that already considers them to be expendable. That's not to mention Sands' wife and child — what will become of them?

The debate between the two men is captivating. The camera lingers, with long takes and few cuts, reinforcing the viewer's own inability to look away from this charged exchange of ideas. The scene is McQueen's thematic centrepiece, elucidating what has come before and preparing the viewer for the final horrors to come.

Horror, yes, for the final act chronicles Sands' hunger strike. His slow, agonising act of violence against his own body is far more harrowing than the abrupt and intense brutality that characterise the first part of the film. He performs it with zen-like conviction; it's a small outcry that will echo in the halls of history.

Sands' son visits him during this time. It's unclear what the boy sees as he watches his father's gradual degradation — as his flesh wastes, and his undernourished skin splits with raw, taut soreness. No doubt Sands sees not the son who will be left to grieve his dead father, but the next generation of Irish who, he hopes, will benefit from the stand he and his kind have taken.

The dearth of narrative and character development makes this an alienating film. Likewise the graphic nature of its portrayal of violence.

But it is unsettlingly beautiful, in particular, in its use of grotesque and hypnotic imagery: the earthy swirls of a shit-smeared cell wall; pools of piss that blossom from beneath cell doors into the prison corridor; later, the systematic process of eradicating the results of these scatalogical acts of defiance, a task that is repetitious, tedious, but effective — how efficient is the imperial response to these desperate assertions of humanity.

Most captivating of all is Sands' conviction, and his pursuit of a cause that he sees as sacred, despite means that might more easily be characterised as profane.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue. He is a contributor to the Black Box e-anthology. Email Tim

Topic tags: tim kroenert, hunger, ira, irish, republican, steve mcqueen, Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, hunger str



submit a comment

Existing comments

Good review. Went and saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Palace/Metro in Melbourne this week. Pretty amazing stuff. Played a seriously rocked up version of The Weeping Song, which went down a treat. Also chucked in a rendition of the twisted gospel number, Get Ready For Love - just great!

Charles Boy | 09 January 2009  

Such beauty amid such violence, it lingers with me 3 months later.
When Sands is literally thrown into his cell, the entire 2/3 left of screen is the bare grey concrete of the floor, the other 1/3 Sands from the shoulders up. He appears lifeless, then a hint of a smile livens his bloody face, giving the impression of a clown. This one long shot conveyed so much. ‘Thank Christ – one more beating over with’, ‘respite till the next’, ‘15 rounds with a truck but I am still here, I have survived’, ‘Violate my body but you cannot take my soul’, ‘I can endure and transcend so long as I am true to who I am’.

In the hospital scenes two men from either side of the war as the gentle, compassionate orderly so tenderly tends Sands skeletal form, applying ointment to his bedsores - heart wrenching; when, by the bath, his place is quietly taken by the UDA tattooed orderly I was filled with dread. Sands turns his head to face the wall ‘true to himself with every fragile fibre of my being’. When he collapses & the UDA man picks him up & carries Sands limp body, it is a Pieta image as moving as any Michelangelo sculpture.

Helen Coles | 14 February 2009  

Similar Articles

Australians shaped by the spirit of place

  • Alexandra Coghlan
  • 16 January 2009

Landscape has long been acknowledged as central to Australian colonial history. In contrast to the harsh conditions endured by settlers in Sydney Cove, convicts in Tasmania experienced a veritable Eden. (March 2008)


Pulped promises and draining tidal waters

  • Gillian Telford
  • 15 January 2009

the wood-chip mills with gaping jaws strip chew and spit out forests ... protestors gather in city parks to march with banners — promises are processed — pulped (February 2008)