If you go to see prison service brutality and the heroism of Bobby Sands then that is likely what you will see in ‘Hunger’, the film directed by Steve McQueen.
If you go expecting to see Republican propaganda on the big screen, then you’ll see Republican propaganda.
Republicans seemed to welcome the movie as a tribute to the courage of Bobby Sands and Unionists condemned the waste of State money that supported the making of the ‘Republican’ movie in Northern Ireland.
The tackling of a subject matter such as the 1981 Hunger Strike makes the movie ‘controversial’? Thought provoking perhaps, but no movie is controversial simply because of its subject. Is ‘Hunger’ a true portrayal – of course not, it is a movie. Is the treatment of the subject matter ‘fair’ – by whose judgement or against what criteria? Does it make Sands the Hero – Steve McQueen, the director, says ‘take a closer look if that is what you think.’
There has been a great deal of focus on the dialogue between Sands (played outstandingly by Michael Fassbender) and the fictional Fr Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). This is the most intense piece of dialogue in a movie that largely speaks through its cinematography. The movie is a triptych. To understand the importance of this dialogue it is necessary to explore before and after this centrepiece.
The first part of the film is about the Prison Officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). This is a portrait of a man on the edge. His only fleeting escape is locker room bravado with his fellow officers. Lohan is a lonely man. He dresses alone, eats alone, stands alone. His loneliness is compounded by visits to an aged mother who does not know his name. He is a man who no longer knows himself. Lost.
Then there is the new inmate, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) uncomfortable with his demand for political status, longing for family, out of place among his fellow inmates on the IRA dirty protest. Yet a member of the IRA and therefore obliged to conform, to believe. Trapped.
The focus of the film moves slowly towards Sands as the central subject. The encounter with Fr Moran is gripping. It is Moran who frames final act. He questions Sands’s motive in pursuing a hunger strike to the death. He points to the IRA inmates as being out of touch. Inside too long. Brutalised by the system, and yet of the system. How in such circumstances could any decision be rational? Deluded.
Sands responds as a driven and focused individual. It is his vision, his will, his decision. Moran points to the inmates as a mill stone around the neck of the IRA, the dirty protest as being a no win strategy that took the initiative away from a leadership outside the prison. Sands was taking them into a new no-win battle that would simply draw attention to IRA impotence. Sands does not accept this. Sands believes he is the future. His death will be a new dawn, an inspiration to the next generation. Martyr.
The last part of the movie guides us through the death of Sands. The brutality of the opening part of the movie is contrasted with the serene, humanity of death.
All that is left is the question posed by Fr Moran to Sands: ‘what does death achieve?’
This movie does not present Sands as a hero. He is presented as a man with purpose, but out of date and out of touch. His death was his choice, his decision: as was the death of Lohan. It was right that the film ended on the death of Sands. It was an end in more ways than one.
For the first time since reading Richard O’Rawe’s book ‘Blanketmen’, the end of ‘Hunger’ allowed me to understand why Sinn Fein/IRA/Republicans dislike O’Rawe so much. O’Rawe’s proposition is that the inmates wished to end the hunger strike after four men had died, but the outside command allowed the strike to continue to enable Owen Carron to keep the Parliamentary seat won by Bobby Sands.
Fr Moran points to the deep hole in which the ‘outside’ command found itself at the time of the hunger strikes. There was no military victory possible and the course of political discourse was being driven by factors inside the Maze prison and beyond ‘control’. Ironically the Sands hunger strike provided the IRA with a way out of that hole. The election of Sands and then Carron set them on a political path that has ultimately led them to Stormont.
Sands represents the end of an era. That is why O’Rawe has been cast out of the Republican family. He pointed out that the hunger strike became a vehicle for change; a change that ended the IRA of Bobby Sands and heralded a new political era – not quite the new dawn that Sands had anticipated. Betrayed.
Hunger is a powerful movie. There are powerful performances by the cast. There are powerful undercurrents too.
The prison is turned into a metaphor for a society that is brutalised. People, ordinary people are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence being fed by alienation and disassociation from all else outside this maelstrom.
In Sands there is a man who seeks to inspire a new generation – the revolutionary vanguard to a new United Ireland. Instead, his death served a cause far removed from the one for which he was prepared to die. The Armalite placed on the shelf in exchange for the off the shelf Armani.
Sands. Lost, trapped, deluded, martyr, betrayed.