Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” – 2008 New York Film Festival Review

Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s impressive feature debut, “Hunger,” is not your normal biopic – and that’s a very good thing. Sound and image (especially sound) are given primacy in McQueen’s experimental, non-narrative film, which examines the final days of IRA activist and political prisoner Bobby Sands as he slowly perished from a 66-day hunger strike in 1981.

The strike was a pivotal event of the “Troubles,” the protracted war involving Northern Ireland’s struggles against the British for independence. Before the hunger strikes – the second, more effective one was depicted in the film – were the “blanket” and “no wash” protests. The former was a direct result of the government’s stripping the prisoners of special political status. To protest the elimination of their rights, the inmates refused to wear clothes and would only take blankets to cover themselves. Prison guards retaliated by not allowing them to use the toilets, which led to the “no wash” protests, where the prisoners refused to bathe themselves, and urinated and defecated inside their cells, smearing the excrement on the walls.

The impact of these protests is given form and character in the guise of two prisoners we follow in the film’s early scenes. Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a new prisoner, is shown the ropes by cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam MacMahon). Through their experience, we witness the excruciating details of brutal life in the notorious Maze prison, where the imprisoned IRA members were kept. This illustrates the film’s major theme: the body, specifically the male body, as the vessel and site of resistance to authority. Often stripped naked, beaten and dragged through the corridors by the prison guards, their bodies are literally all they have, and the hunger strike becomes the ultimate form of self-sacrifice and martyrdom to their cause.

About one-third of the way into the film, we are then introduced rather offhandedly to Sands (Michael Fassbender) as he is visited by his parents. This reinforces the fact that, as celebrated and notorious as Sands was, he was part of a movement that was much larger than one person. Yet there is something singular about Sands, and he does consciously see himself as a symbol. “Hunger” surprisingly reveals itself as very Catholic work, and Sands emerges as a Christ-like figure, albeit an irreverent, sacrilegious one, to be sure (he rips up his Bible to use as rolling papers for his cigarettes). The suffering and physical deterioration of Sands render this in intricate detail, the sores on his skin looking like nothing less than stigmata.

Sands directly argues the rationale behind his decision to go on the hunger strike in an extraordinary scene in the center of the film, in which he debates a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham) over the wisdom and effectiveness of the strike. Up until this point, there had been virtually no dialog; much of McQueen’s previous installation video art is silent works and that style carries over into this film. We are now confronted with a verbal avalanche as the two men parry in their dialectical debate. Sands refuses to negotiate or settle for less than the full reinstatement of the prisoners’ special political status, while the priest stresses the importance of compromise. This scene is a breather from the stark violence and an opportunity for the viewer to reflect on the greater meaning of this struggle, and indeed, what it really means to die for a cause.

Unconvinced by the priest’s arguments, Sands goes through with the hunger strike, during which nine other prisoners perished. His eventual passing is represented by superimposed images of birds taking flight, symbolizing the freedom death has given him, a rather trite and cliched image that is the film’s only misstep.

While watching a man wasting away from starvation is no one’s idea of a fun night out at the movies, “Hunger” rewards those able to endure the extreme imagery with a compelling artistic vision. McQueen’s images, aided by Sean Bobbitt’s precisely-rendered cinematography, have a cold beauty that forms a striking contrast to the grimness (and griminess) of their content. McQueen, unlike other visual artists transitioning to cinema, has a sure hand with the form, especially in working with his actors. Fassbender – best known to U.S. audiences from Zack Snyder’s “300” – as Sands especially impresses in his scene with the priest and in navigating the physical challenges of his role (he clearly actually fasted for the film’s latter scenes).

“Hunger” screens on September 27 and 28 at the New York Film Festival, and will open in early 2009. Click on the dates to order tickets from the Lincoln Center Web site.