Show Hide image

Celebrating masochism

The latest James Bond blockbuster is little more than the usual exercise in designer violence, while

Film distribution often operates on the principle of counter-programming: if a blockbuster about, say, a nattily dressed secret service agent is scheduled to open in a certain week, it makes good business sense to release an art film concerning the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands on the same day, as any audience overlap will surely be negligible. That's the theory, anyway.

The peculiar thing about watching Quantum of Solace, the 22nd James Bond film, while Hunger is still fresh (or rather, pungent) in the memory is that this strategy begins to look less robust. The films, both British-made but from opposite ends of the budgetary scale, have more in common than nationality. I'm not saying that you couldn't tell them apart: Quantum of Solace is so saturated with product placement, it's a miracle that the shot of Bond going glassy-eyed after his seventh consecutive Martini isn't followed by a plug for the Priory. (Promotional opportunities are understandably scarcer in Hunger. Even the IRA hasn't got anything to plug these days.) But, should you get your kicks watching limber male bodies being smashed, bashed, brutalised and pummelled in forensic close-up against a backdrop of implicit criticism of the British government, you could plump for either picture and still come up trumps.

The Bond films used to hinge on gadgets and hardware - the poison-squirting fountain pen, or the wristwatch that can fire poisoned darts, pick up Radio 4 and retune automatically to a soothing sonata whenever James Naughtie begins another circuitous question. In the current, sombre incarnation of the series, there is no call for such frivolity now that Daniel Craig himself resembles some kind of blunt instrument, a cosh or a club. Wherever Bond goes, glaziers report a sharp increase in business: he hardly ever meets a man he doesn't throw through a set of French windows. (Broken glass rains down throughout the picture like an autumn shower.) Weirdly, he is at his least threatening when he is holding a gun - his body is all the hardware he needs. In fact, you might say that both Quantum of Solace and Hunger are about isolated, single-minded warriors using their bodies as weapons to gain leverage, eroticised by a camera that dotes on every injury.

Quantum of Solace follows Bond's quest to avenge the death of Vesper Lynd, his ex-lover who was murdered at the end of Casino Royale. This brings him into contact with Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who is hunting the man who killed her family. Bond and Camille are too preoccupied with vengeance to trade bodily fluids; where once he might have given her a night to remember, now he just gives her pointers on assassination ("You have one shot. Take a deep breath. Make it count"). Camille in turn is tangled up with Mr Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a reptilian sadist whose environmental concerns hide exploitative business practices. Hats off here to whichever one of the three screenwriters (Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) came up with the idea of showing how a green front is this millennium's must-have disguise for any toxic conglomerate.

Like its immediate predecessor, Quantum of Solace exorcises some of the conservative ghosts of the franchise. Making the hero cruel and tormented is one part of that process, as is the trick of subverting images from old Bond films, including a pointed update of the nastiest scene from Goldfinger. Another is presenting female characters who are at no point called upon to brandish a strawberry daiquiri in a bikini: Gemma Arterton is nicely crisp, playing a mackintoshed MI6 agent as a minx straight out of Joe Orton, while Judi Dench, as the wire-haired M, is so regally disdainful that she makes Gore Vidal look like Christopher Biggins.

Despite the emphasis on realism, the action set pieces haven't been noticeably downgraded under the director, Marc Forster, who runs a tight ship - so tight, in fact, that he seems to have removed every second shot in the editing, turning the fight scenes into abstract blurs of movement in which the identity of the combatants is anybody's guess. But shouldn't a Bond film worth the name be simply enjoyable? Even a chase that ends with Bond and his quarry crashing through a glass dome onto a pair of scaffolding towers, where they proceed to whip planks from beneath one another in a sort of oversized game of Jenga, induces exhaustion rather than excitement. The film is, I think, too much in love with its hero's gloominess. When he plants a string of kisses along a woman's back, one is reminded of nothing so much as the shark in Jaws, mouth agape as it prepares to gnaw on Quint (Robert Shaw). Craig has become a blank canvas to which only the cuts and scabs lend definition; there is even a witty riff on this idea when extras in a production of Tosca are shown having gashes painted on their faces.

Similarly, in Hunger, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is not so much a character as a set of opaque principles, brought into focus for the audience by his suffering. The film, directed with magisterial authority by the artist Steve McQueen, expresses in sensory rather than narrative terms the final weeks of Sands's life, when he resorted to hunger strike in protest against the British government's refusal to recognise IRA captives as political prisoners.

Long before the camera starts cataloguing the deterioration of Sands's body, we are inundated with the nitty-gritty of life on H-block at the Maze Prison in 1981, from the crumbs of toast falling on a prison guard's lap as he eats breakfast and the snowflakes that caress his bloody knuckles when he grabs a cigarette in between pounding heads, to the prisoners' resourceful way of combining bodily function with artistic aspiration, toiling lovingly over hypnotic ochre spirals of excrement on the walls of their cells.

Hunger is not the first film about Bobby Sands; that was Terry George's Some Mother's Son in 1996. Nor is it the only attempt to distil the Troubles down to decontextualised snatches of brutality, as Alan Clarke did with his 1988 Elephant. However, the stylistic palette of McQueen's picture, and its grasp of cinematic vocabulary, elevate the film to a purely visceral realm, so that it seems to bypass your eyes and ears and go straight for your nerve endings.

McQueen knows about tempo and contrast: he alternates serene silence with oppressive noise; images of bodily decay with hints of spiritual weightlessness; and patient, never-ending shots with reeling, hand-held images which suggest that the camera has been fixed to a Catherine wheel. This overwhelming onslaught dwarfs whatever gimmicks or innovations past film-makers have dreamed up to try to absorb us more fully in their flickering world, from IMAX and 3D to Odorama. Hunger rather puts one in mind of that phrase you see on maps designed to help the bewildered tourist: "You Are Here". Well, from the opening clang of dustbin lids on cobblestones to the final scenes of Sands fading away beneath blood-and-bile-soaked sheets, We Are There.

In contrast to Forster's celebratory portrayal of masochism in Quantum of Solace, McQueen and his co-writer, Enda Walsh, at least introduce the possibility that Sands is a vainglorious berk. An extended exchange between him and his priest, in which the prisoner is accused of writing his name large for the history books - of "starting out determined to die" - sounds an equivocal note that lingers on through the remainder of the picture. Yet the film-makers are kidding themselves if they think they've purged Hunger of its politics simply by avoiding political discussion. Remember, Clarke called his film Elephant after Bernard MacLaverty's observation that the Troubles were "the elephant in our living room", and they are the elephant in Hunger, too. It may be impossible to make a truly impartial film on this subject, but McQueen at least acknowledges a world beyond Sands's martyrdom - the guard checking under his car for bombs, his colleague ducking out of a group assault on inmates to sob silently in an adjoining room.

If Hunger has a practical purpose, it will be to act as a challenge to other directors to liberate themselves from conventional artistic language. Conversely, the worry with Quantum of Solace is that, for all its fresh touches, it may be leading the James Bond film up a blind alley. It is oddly comforting that Forster has held on to the tradition of the preposterous credits sequence (this time, we get giant female silhouettes rising from sand dunes, like in a 1950s monster movie) because, without it, he might have come perilously close to throwing out Bond with the bathwater.

In the absence of such playfulness, the future of the series could, to adapt George Orwell, amount to a vision of James Bond stamping on a man's face forever.

"Hunger" (15) and "Quantum of Solace" (12A) are in cinemas from 31 October

ryan gilbey's pick of the London Film Festival

Blind Loves

This Slovakian documentary incorporates a quartet of stories about the lives of vision-impaired people. These include a pregnant woman concerned that the authorities will deem her unfit for parenthood and a music teacher whose love of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea inspires a batty animated sequence, which gives fair notice that this is not your average documentary.

Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme's richest film in more than 20 years has all the compassion and eccentricity of his finest work. Anne Hathaway (right, in the picture below) is outstanding as Kym, who joins the preparations for her sister's wedding straight from rehab. Old family resentments provide no end of drama, but the verité camerawork, footloose performances and on-screen musical turns keep it unpredictable.

The Class

A documentary-style camera is also crucial to the power of this Palme d'Or-winning drama about a year in the life of one Parisian high school class. Based on the autobiographical book by the teacher François Bégaudeau, who effectively plays himself, this is another step forward for the director Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out).

Once Upon a Time in the West

The new print of Sergio Leone's 1968 western is a humdinger: the restoration work is so vivid you can hear the wheezing in Ennio Morricone's harmonica-laced score, and peer deep into the pores on Henry Fonda's chamois-leather face.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas