Hunger: What the Audience isn't Given

Jacob Rose explores how Steve McQueen's first feature film 'Hunger' [2008] is most powerful in what it takes away from an audience. 

From the perspective of someone with little to no understanding (and yet a vast interest) in the Thatcher-era contexts of Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' [2009], the film may initially seem unforgiving. Whilst beautifully shot, the slow scenes of the first five minutes (a prolonged close up on a turn of car keys; the bathing of an officer's red-stung knuckles in the clear white of clean basins; a bleak wide shot of a banal expanse, softened by falling snow) prey at what an audience expects. For a film titled ‘Hunger’, we spend the majority of our viewing experience in hunt for the nourishment of conventional satisfaction that barely comes by when the credits roll. 

This is where I believe Steve McQueen’s filmmaking thrives: in works like “12 Years A Slave”, there is the semblance of a similar level of uncertainty from what an audience expects to be given; in his recent “Mangrove”, the constant use of close-ups on Frank Crichlow help to depict the conflicting mentality of giving in or maintaining a gruelling, biased trial, based on the expectations of close-ups to reflect deep thought, rather than pure  expression and exposition. It is ‘Hunger’, however, that shows the power that can be attributed to this sense of absence. This seems mostly based on the absence of attention of these rights for prisoners at the time, as it was Bobby Sands’ hunger strikes that provoked the attention leading to the wider public awareness of the treatment of imprisoned IRA members at the time. In taking up to 40 minutes to transfer the several perspectives for that of Sands, McQueen allows the audience to understand the wider contexts in which the decision was made: on one side, the prisoners, introduced through a means of protests and downfalls (most notably in the slow paced long shot of our more ‘everyman’ introductory protagonist being forced to strip in front of an inordinate crowd of officers). On the other, the internal conflict and passion of the hand of law (presented through a split diopter shot of a riot policeman, and another gruelling one shot of a man wiping away pools of protest-urine). By obscuring the lines between the concepts of right and wrong (even when one would expect a biopic to portray a strong bias towards the subject in question), Steve McQueen allows a more innovative experience that gives the audience a higher level of insight into both the context of the time period as well as the conflict of the decisions made by both oppressor and oppressed.

However, it is important to note that this obscurity in the first "act" of the film, so to speak, acts mainly to blur the lines for the main decision of the film: Bobby Sands' hunger strike. In concordance with showing how gruelling previous prisoner decisions were, McQueen uses a 17-minute long take, symmetrically split between Sands and a priest and backlit to present almost pure darkness, with only an outlined glow emitted from the two characters to present the obscurity between "right and wrong". Whilst in later films, McQueen would expand this use of the long take to include fluid movements to express emotionally debilitating and exhausting scenes, the fixation applied here is essential at demonstrating the intent of righteousness, with the two single-shot takes of the scene exposing any insecurity or flaw within this deterministic purpose. 

The later half of this scene blends exceptionally with the screenplay, through which the anecdotal focus on the death of a foal provides symbolism that emanates the blur between idealised righteousness and the harm that sacrifice brings. Linguistically, the use of present participles in “grabbing me by the hair, dragging me through the forest” presents the external view, of Sands being punished for his actions in an ever-present consequence, whereas the past tense verbs in “I knew I did the right thing by that wee foal” present Sands’ perception of the events, as one where his resolution ends at the foal’s death, a sacrifice of worth. With these effects, combined with the aforementioned single-shot take of Fassbender’s portrayal of Sands, McQueen is presenting a full development of character, that forces an audience to consider Sands as a whole, rather than a distant martyr of pure heroism. 

The final act of 'Hunger' is one of displaying the consequences of the previous development of character. Whilst brutal displays of action have been demonstrated throughout, from the frequency of prisoner beatdowns with chillingly hard sound design to the abrupt execution of an audience-accompanied officer within a seemingly comforting nursing home, this third act is vital at delivering a visceral tone through both immediate shock and lasting despondency. The immediate shock mostly comes in terms of a drastic change due to the skipping of __ days: this serves to drastically change both the location and the physicality of the actor. Both serve to present Sands’ final moments as cold, and harsh. Through an expository voice-over, and visual markers on a now fragile body, McQueen explores the state of disrepair as one of two directions: maintaining the strike through to the end, or giving in. Both outcomes are the only strongly saturated objects we see in these scenes, from the jarring red sores and toilet stains of his body’s decay to the rich purple of jam on toast: stealing the visual focus, blurring all acts of resistance behind the option of freedom. McQueen’s portrayal of despondency begins through the desaturation of all but these outcomes: all that remains is a cold, hard blue to emphasise the lack of life, the inhospitality of a hospital as lifeless as him. Whilst dialogue is still used within this stage, this is the furthest 'Hunger' achieves McQueen’s original intention, of a dialogue-free portrayal of Sands’ experience. Instead of relying upon language to present the strain of Sands’ decision on his well being, the use of visual indicators act to extend this depiction into a more empathetic light. In a notable scene, the camera’s motion takes on a ‘stream of consciousness’-like soar above Sands bed; combined with a bleeding image of birds taking flight, McQueen masterfully involves the audience within Sands’ fragile humanity to a point of intense unease. By avoiding standard communication, 'Hunger' is able to communicate its humanity more effectively, as the audience is left with unconscious reactions and urges, only emphasised by a near-barren audio landscape. In McQueen’s own words, “Words are shit, because they put you somewhere else. I’m trying to catch the things that are in between.”

In its final moments, ‘Hunger’ offers absence in reflection. Through a flashback, the audience is given two actions from a younger Michael Fassbender: observing, and running. This inaction within the closing scenes of the film brings no new insight into his character through his younger actions. Instead, it offers continuation: in his younger self’s dedication through the mundane act of running, Sands is able to apply a similar dedication, enabling his death to feel

'Hunger' is not a film for the faint of heart. While that comment could just as well describe the intensity of its violence, or its constant displays of walls smeared with excrement, this comment stems more from the film’s complexity in tackling the tax of actions on each side. From my perspective, this is done equally, with Bobby Sands’ decision occupying the focus due to the sheer weight of the actions in both their debilitating effects upon Sands (and the 16 others that died for prisoner’s rights) as well as how this set forward a change in media awareness. For some, however, this interpretation was not shared: David Cox of The Guardian states “the men heroised in ‘Hunger’ chose to murder my fellow citizens”. Whilst being incredibly proficient in expressing intention, the political controversy of the context has clouded the film - for those biased against Sands - in an assumed display of Martyrdom, instead of empathy in struggle. My previously mentioned lack of knowledge did admittedly leave me unaware of Bobby Sands’ previous crimes, including a gunfight with the police and planning of a bombing. However, I believe that this acts as a second cause for the first act’s focus on the everyman perspective: to bring an uncertain audience into a fate undeserved of the everyman, in order to reinforce the need for Sands’ decision later on. 

In summary, ‘Hunger’ offers a cinematic experience unlike no other, in which endurance is a key focus in both the accomplished presentation of a gruelling historical experience as well as for an audience, taking in substantial detail while emotionally encumbered by the imposed connection between audience and character. With its release as his debut feature film in 2008, Steve McQueen revealed a remarkable talent in filmmaking that has only excelled through his larger projects.

This is a user generated post from our Arts Award on Voice community and was not edited by the Voice team. We would love to hear your views too! Sign up for an account and make your Voice heard!


Jacob Rose

Jacob Rose

This author has no bio :(

Recent posts by this author

View more posts by Jacob Rose


Post A Comment

You must be signed in to post a comment. Click here to sign in now

You might also like

'Fragments' with Wessex Archaeology and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

'Fragments' with Wessex Archaeology and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

by Museum Education

Read now