Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.
This powerful, uncompromising and sexually explicit drama reunites Michael Fassbender with Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger. Shame is a confronting character study about loneliness, sex, addiction and the high price we sometimes pay for our addictions. It is probably the most disturbing study of the nexus between sex and addiction since David Cronenberg’s 1996 drama Crash.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful stockbroker who seems to live the good life in New York. But Brandon is also addicted to sex – he hires prostitutes, engages in casual sex with women he meets on trains or in bars. He masturbates in the shower at home and in the toilets at work. And his computer at work is full of pornography. But it is all empty sex – there is no human connection whatsoever. But Brandon seems able to manage both these aspects of his life, until his emotionally fragile and wayward younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes for a visit.
An aspiring cabaret singer who flits from one gig to another, Sissy has emotional needs of her own, and her visit has devastating consequences for the pair. There are hints at a dark and troubled shared past between Brandon and Sissy that has left both of them emotionally damaged. “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” Sissy’s presence also shakes his normal detachment and sense of being in control. Brandon’s life suddenly begins a downward spiral leading to a startling personal revelation.
Shame has been written by Abi Morgan (who also wrote the recent Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady), and offers a painfully true examination of the human condition, loneliness, and how our base needs can consume us. Morgan’s script is sparse and refrains from painting in too many details.
McQueen comes from a background as an award-winning visual artist, and it shows in his visually stylish direction – the way he has framed the film, and the way he often uses reflective surfaces like mirrors and windows to capture Brandon’s emotional state. He also uses silence effectively in creating a distinctively unsettling mood for the film. There is a deliberate repetition and rhythm to the film as it track’s Brandon’s daily routine.
And McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt uses deliberately framed long takes, close-ups and a mix of static shots and tracking shots to good effect. He also uses the New York streetscapes to open the film out from its often oppressive feel.
Fassbender has often delivered draining performances, such as with the raw physicality of his role as hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger. But here his performance as the self-destructive Brandon is a more internal and nuanced one that hints at his character’s contradictory nature and tortured psyche. He delivers an emotionally raw, revealing and brave performance full of self-loathing and pain.
Mulligan is a versatile actress capable of playing a wide range of characters. She is also excellent, and shows a brash sexuality and emotional vulnerability in a raw and demanding role. Her rendition of New York, New York is a haunting ode to loneliness. Harry Escott’s string-laden score is also haunting.
There is solid support from James Badge Dale (The Pacific, The Grey, etc) as Brandon’s rather callow boss David, and Nicole Beharie as Marianne, a co-worker with whom Brandon has a brief but unsatisfactory relationship.
Shame is a bleak, downbeat and sexually explicit film that makes for uncomfortable viewing, and it will not appeal to everyone. There is some full frontal nudity here, both male and female, which has earned the film its R rating, but the effect is numbing rather that titillating or shocking.