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Sonic motifs, structure and identity in Steve McQueen’s Hunger

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Since its release in 2008, Steve McQueen’s Hunger has received critical acclaim for its powerful and uncompromising portrayal of the 1981 ‘dirty protest’ and subsequent hunger strike by Irish Republican inmates in Northern Ireland’s infamous Maze prison. In most instances, the focus of critics’ attention has been on the film’s political connotations, its set pieces – in particular the much talked about 22-minute dialogue scene at its heart – and, perhaps unsurprisingly given McQueen’s background as a visual artist, its visual language. Yet it is the film’s use of sound, so widely acknowledged by writers yet left relatively under-discussed, that is perhaps its most intriguing aspect. The relatively sparse use of dialogue in much of the film affords space for a rich and prominent use of sonic material – including musical cues – and an attention to aural detail that mirrors that of the film’s visual imagery. In addition, a closer reading of the film reveals a more integral use of sound in the form of a series of recurrent sonic motifs that, over the course of the film, serve as an important structural tool, framing its narrative content while seemingly playing on established political associations to simultaneously affirm and nullify the sectarian divide of its characters. By exploring the motific content and context of both Hunger’s sound and composed, musical components, this article aims to provide an insight into one of the most striking cinematic works to emerge in recent years.

Keywords: Hunger; Steve McQueen (director); film structure; ritual; sectarian identity; sound motif; the ‘Troubles’

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Ulster

Publication date: 2011-08-11

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  • The Soundtrack is a multi-disciplinary journal which brings together research in the area of music and sound in relation to film and other moving image media. A complex cultural, technological, industrial and artistic phenomenon, sound-with-moving image is a rich area for analysis, investigation and speculation. We encourage writing that is accessible to audiences from a diversity of intellectual backgrounds and disciplines as well as providing a forum for practitioners. The Soundtrack's aim is to nurture this new and expanding area of academic investigation in dialogue with soundtrack producers of all kinds.
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