A film about a sex addict in New York sounds like a banal rom-com starring some A-list heartthrob like Ashton Kutcher or Gerard Butler. Well, Steve McQueen’s Shame couldn’t be further from that stomach-churning premise. The British director’s sombre morality play about a sex pest in the city is a bleak and intriguing affair; an unflinching character study about a detached introvert that’ll bore many, immerse few. Make no mistake about it, this is one for the independent and art-house purists who appreciate fine film-making and damn good acting.
Shame tells of Brandon, (Michael Fassbender) a self-consumed sex addict whose perverse private life reaches a crossroads when his idle sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up on his doorstep and begins to meddle and annoy.
In spite of his success, charm and rugged good looks, Brandon is a hard (no pun intended) and isolated man incapable of forging a meaningful relationship with anybody. The fact Shame is set in Manhattan is far from coincidental; it underscores Brandon’s anonymity and isolation. This is sex and sex addiction like you’ve never seen on screen before; complex, sobering and destructive. Sexual healing can go fuck itself.
Once again, the intense and immense Michael Fassbender is highly convincing inside a very difficult role that requires a great deal of patience and restraint and balls for that matter; strolling around on screen with them out, taking a slash and performing an array of explicit scenes can’t be easy but where there’s method, there’s Fassbender. He does his director proud; going the distance for McQueen once more and bagging himself the first of many Oscar nods in the process.
Carey Mulligan is also superb as the suicidal Sissy. Outgoing, dramatic and needy, she’s the complete opposite of her big brother but his saviour nonetheless. Her erratic and, at times, spellbinding performance is by far the best of her career thus far.
Then there’s McQueen. The gifted and fearless director of Hunger whose approach to film making is as bold and as beautiful and as it is challenging and technical. The man loves his prolonged stationary shots and employs them to lingering effect throughout, allowing Fassbender and Mulligan to adlib and feel their way through scenes in pursuit of total realism. McQueen also opts for what can only be described as a majestic tracking shot in one scene where Brandon flees Sissy’s company in the way of a metaphorical run.
In only his second feature, McQueen achieves a balance between the two main adjectives all directors and authors care about, “unique” and “brilliant”. Here, he has a freehold on both of them; the sheer thought and attention to detail behind each and every shot is remarkable. From the potent close-ups of Brandon pressed against a grimy train window to moody, single takes of him doing his business.
Shame is by no means the first film to look at sex addiction in modern cinema. Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke was adapted into a droll and enjoyable indie satire some 4 years back but it’s hard to compare the two. They differ in both genre and approach; Shame being the unprotected half of the two in its honest telling of truths seldom admitted in mainstream cinema. Its climax is a telling and unforgettable one; abrupt, daring and open- hopeless in the eyes of some, uplifting in the eyes of many. Mcqueen and Fassbender’s last tango in Manhattan may not be as powerful as their first collaboration, but it certainly doesn’t fail to stir or impress. In a word; shameless.
Shame (2011), directed by Steve McQueen, is distributed in the UK by Momentum Pictures, Certificate 18.