“I pressured the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring, O love! O love! many times” — Joyce, The Dubliners
Not known for being particularly political as an artist, Steve McQueen remains true to form with his debut film Hunger by seeking to express a balanced view about the no wash protests and Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. Every time we see a police beating, we see a policeman crying. Every time we see a no wash protester smearing his own shit up the walls, we see a warden having to clean it up. Every time we see Sands being helped by a sympathetic trusty, we are shown that the system can also be sadistic by replacing said trusty with a member of the UDA. However, despite McQueen’s desire to be balanced and realistic in his portrayal of the no wash and hunger strikes, he cannot help but allow his film to be dominated by the same sentimental narratives that dominate all films about Irish independence.
In Hunger, the desire for balance is not only expressed politically but also structurally and aesthetically. The film’s centrepiece is a twenty minute scene shot in one take from a fixed position during which Sands and a more moderate priest debate the pros and cons of suicide as a political tactic. Clearly written with Islamic suicide bombers in mind, this scene’s witty and yet cerebral back and forth is intensely stylised and incredibly theatrical. Indeed, it seems not unreasonable to lay this scene entirely at the feet of McQueen’s co-writer the Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Utterly balanced, this scene explores both viewpoints from religious, moral, political and practical perspectives and it impeccably ‘fair and balanced’. From this central scene, stark in its minimalist direction, extend two stylised slices of life; the dirty protests at the beginning of the film and the hunger strike at the end.
The dirty protests are shot with a messy but effective blend of styles. The scenes involving the prison wardens are traditionally cinematic. The film’s opening scenes focussing upon a prison warden’s pre-work routine convey an introverted sense of being depressed and trapped in a manner that would be at home in any contemporary American middle-class melodrama be it Crash (2005) or Lost in Translation (2003). Alternately, there is also a seen in which a warden is assassinated that could have found its way into any gritty crime drama from The Sopranos to The Departed (2006). These more cinematic scenes contrast with the quasi-documentary realism of the scenes involving the lives of the prisoners such as the experience of being checked in and marked as “non co-operative” or the claustrophobic squalor of life as a dirty protester. This blend of styles brilliantly conveys the sense in which both groups are trapped in their own little worlds. The protesters are unwilling to back down and do their time quietly and the guards or their masters are unwilling to allow them to wear their own clothes. Thatcher is only ever present as a disembodied voice; expressing political platitudes that barely seem related to the realities that we have been shown.
The hunger strike begins in the same documentary style. We see Sands being offered food, being bathed and shitting blood as his body starts to consume itself. The further along the path Sands goes, the further McQueen moves from realism. As Sands’ mind starts to go, the screen becomes blurred and the sound muffled, but it is the final scenes that are the most memorable. Attended by a trusty who never says a word and surrounded by gleaming sunlight and polished whiteness, Sands lies naked on the bed, his ribs visible, his pubic hair literally glinting in the sunlight as his final breaths leak out of him. This is not so much a death scene as an ascension, the final moments of a journey from the filth and squalor of the real world to the lightness and saintliness of a man who passed into legend for his decision to martyr himself for the cause. This Christ-like ascension is accompanied with images of young boys running through the Irish country-side. Images of an idealised bucolic youth in an idealised bucolic Ireland. No traces of British soldiers or paedophile priests taint these final moments… this is the Ireland of adverts for Irish stout.
By and large, McQueen’s attempt at balance is a success. This is not a film that brow-beats you with moral absolutism or which rails at Perfidious Albion. Instead it is a film that weighs its styles and its editorial content carefully and places all of it in a very deliberate fashion. Hunger is very much cinema as art as you can feel the painstaking attention to detail, proportion, shade, colour and texture. However, despite this desire for balance, it is difficult to walk away from the film without fixating upon Sands’ journey. While clearly included only as a means of aesthetic contrast, the movement from shit, maggots and wanking to an almost Christ-like martyr’s death is a clear narrative journey that runs throughout the film and, ultimately, it is this narrative that comes to dominate and define it.
However, Hunger is not the only film to fall into this trap when writing about the Irish Republican movement. In fact, bar perhaps Boorman’s The General (1998) and Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005) — both films featuring larger-than-life characters whose fantastical natures are emphasised by the gritty realities of life during the Troubles — it is difficult to think of a film about Irish independence that is not intensely sentimentalist.
The ne plus ultra of this trend is Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006). Retreading similar ground to his (superior) 1995 film about the Spanish Civil War Land and Freedom, Loach ends The Wind That Shakes The Barley with a heart-rending scene in which the main protagonists are martyred for their beliefs in a manner that underlines the film’s commitment to the truth of precisely these ideals. Even Neil Jordan’s more politically centrist Michael Collins (1996) sees the film’s titular protagonist murdered for supporting a two-state solution.
It is tempting to consider why it is that martyrdom plays such a large part in films about the Irish struggle for independence. The graphic novel Preacher features a vignette revolving around the 1916 Easter Uprising and it is suggested that the futility of the armed uprising was in fact intentional as the leaders of the Republican movement (particularly Eamon de Valera) were looking for a ‘blood sacrifice’ that might motivate future generations given the alleged ambivalence of the Irish people at the time to the cause of independence. This is a vision that flows largely from modern ‘revisions’ of the Easter Uprising such as those put forward in R. F. Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988), which suggests that “An intrinsic component of the insurrection […] was the strain of mystic Catholicism identifying the Irish soul as Catholic and Gaelic”.
It is worth remembering at this point that sentimentalism, before it found a natural home in Hollywood, was a philosophical and theological school of thought. Originating in the 17th Century, sentimentalism is the idea that morality is grounded in emotional and intuitive reactions. This view contrasts neatly with the Calvinist view of human nature as too depraved for its moral sense to be trustworthy, hence the need for rule-following and rationalist moral calculus. This vision of humanity as a creature that damns or saves itself at an emotional level could arguably be seen as being behind much a-rational religious imagery and argument. If emotions are the seat of salvation then it makes sense to appeal to them through grand architecture, images of beautiful Jesii and an emphasis on Jesus’ suffering for our sins. What was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ (2004) if not an attempt to bring us to Jesus’ feet through the power of sentiment and empathy?
It would be easy to suggest that Hunger is just another film to advance the trope of Irish Republicans as moral martyrs. Particularly when McQueen’s imagery is so affecting and religious in its aesthetic, but in truth I think that Hunger is not the only film to put forward a sentimentalist vision of war.
Traditionally, cinematic wars are presented to us in Whiggish terms; as in Star Wars (1977), war results in a freer, richer, better world thereby legitimising the sacrifices depicted with such glee through the means of explosions and fire-fights. However, the Vietnam War arguably put an end to such tendencies and so war became, via Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), a surreal, dehumanising and almost a-political environment. This same idea also found its way via the Realist school of International Relations to films such as Doctor Strangelove (1964), Thirteen Days (2000) and The Sum of All Fears (2001). Works that treated war as a destabilising force to be avoided at all cost through careful negotiation and complex inter-national agreements. However, in recent years this image of war has come in for some strenuous competition. Saving Private Ryan (1998) begins with a destabilising, senseless and brutal bloodbath on D-Day and ends with an older Private Ryan weeping and wondering whether the sacrifices made for him were worthwhile and whether he was a ‘good man’. No Whiggish images of progress or Realist Others, films such as Saving Private Ryan and Kang Je-gyu’s Korean War epic Brotherhood (2004) present war as a kind of moral crucible in which people are assayed for moral impurities with the final nugget of moral righteousness wheeled out and paraded as politico-historical insight.
Hunger is an extraordinarily well shot and carefully constructed piece of cinema that is layered around a wonderfully funny and clever piece of theatrical back and forth. Clearly intended to be balanced, Hunger simply cannot get out from under the weight of cinematic history; not only are cinematic depictions of the Troubles unashamedly moralistic and sentimentalist, but so are cinematic images of war in general and in such a context, balance is hard to achieve.