Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan (screenplay), Steve McQueen (screenplay)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict. He’s cultivated a private life that allows him to covertly manage his addiction. When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives for an unannounced indefinite stay; his carefully constructed world begins to crash down around him.
I know that most of you have been bombarded with an encyclopaedia of Fassbender penis jokes in the wake of Shame‘s release overseas, and perhaps a few of my tweets after I saw the film screened. In a way it’s exactly the reaction that the majority of the audience needs to purge himself or herself of seriously powerful filmmaking about a taboo subject, told with unashamed and profound sensuality, and sincerity.
Sexual addiction is a contentious subject – for starters, we’re primarily notified of its existence via the crazy exploits of tabloid fodder like Tiger Woods, or Charlie Sheen. Our exposure to this subject, via mainstream media interpretation, has reduced the concept down to fuel for satire (see the great South Park for evidence). McQueen brings it into the real world and with a protagonist and actor with the bravery to commit to a role that literally and figuratively strips back the layers. I do want to qualify that it also challenges the audience with the questions of the sex industry’s means to quench an uncontrollable desire. In Brandon’s world everyone and everything is sexualised. It changes the way that he’s able to relate to people that he’s attracted to – and allows us to fully examine the extent of this kind of affliction.
Co Writer/Director Steve McQueen burst onto the international film scene with Hunger (2008) the tale of Irish republication Bobby Sands (in the ‘star making’ performance of Michael Fassbender); who while imprisoned in Northern Island leads the inmates on a hunger strike. McQueen is a renaissance man; an all round acclaimed visual artist and established short filmmaker that stormed into feature films by winning the Camera D’Or (the best first feature award) at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.
Shame follows Hunger with the same distinctive visual eye and lack of censorship. McQueen’s feature films are about the primal necessities – and what happens when you indulge and suppress them. There’s a necessary visceral bravery integral to how we (the audience) perceive Brandon’s position in the world. McQueen’s camera establishes a very intimate relationship with Brandon for the most part, but stages stunning interludes that highlight and heighten the significant moments of the story. The following instances of pure visual art cinema left me speechless. The opening scene on the subway between Brandon and a beautiful stranger was as sexually evocative as the more explicit scenes peppered throughout – because of the power of McQueen’s direction and the explosive implicit animal magnetism of Fassbender’s Brandon. There’s a beautiful moment capturing Sissy singing that becomes like a claustrophobic, voyeuristic experience. The tracking shot of Brandon running through the New York City streets to escape his sister’s imposition, and suppress his urges with an ‘acceptable’ physical activity is one of the more powerful example of cinema that I’ve seen this year.
Michael Fassbender was consistently the finest performer of last year with films such as Jane Eyre, X-Men First Class and finally Shame. He brings an intensity and raw vulnerability to his performances but for me does his most overwhelming work in Shame. Brandon’ has to be believable as the sexually magnetic and libidinous creature, and equally as comfortable in a socially repressed façade. Not only is he unashamedly in the nude for a large part of the film but he delivers what’s an ultimately likeable (and wounded) character in the midst of being slightly askew and aloof in the way that he relates to others.
Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is the torpedo to his existence. Her arrival and her own mental wounds challenge his lifestyle. He thirsts for physical intimacy to satisfy a primal need – but he begins to be affected by Sissy’s own deficiencies in maintaining a relationship. Watching Fassbender navigate Brandon’s detached and abnormal relation to a date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) is yet another element of his powerhouse performance. This is an award worthy performance from an titanic acting force in the making with performances in diverse projects such as Prometheus and McQueen’s Twelve years as a Slave on the horizon.
Carey Mulligan’s Sissy is an emotionally raw and wounded performance that I hadn’t seen from her up to this point. Sissy comes back to Brandon desperate for the comfort of family in the wake of another bad break-up and can’t understand his sterile (and for her) perverse existence. Mulligan has to navigate a faux stability in Sissy that’s informed by irrevocable deep emotional wounds than makes for an affective performance. McQueen also had Mulligan strip away the layers of how she’s perceived. There’s a pixie sweetness that is immediately destroyed by her stripping back her physical beauty, literally and figuratively. She’s desperate for love and care; while Brandon’s affronted by the concept. This performance as the character of Sissy in Shame makes ‘get’ the fuss about Carey Mulligan.
McQueen and Morgan’s scripting is pitch perfect. They navigate the subject with openness and develop real characters to occupy the space. There are also some really loaded scenes that have you internally investigating the past of these characters. There is nothing enunciated specifically; you end up projecting all of your own predictions at it. I loved the ambiguity. And without spoiling, it’s a manipulative script that you think you have pegged – but you don’t.
Shame is a perfect but deceptive title. The direction is poetic and iconic; McQueen is an exciting emerging auteur. The scripting by Morgan and McQueen is structured well and perfectly compliments the subject and character, Mulligan delivers her most powerfully raw performance to date as the wounded Sissy. And finally Fassbender delivers a huge,,, sorry engorged…no that’s not it um…SWOLLEN …. No LARGE…no utterly incredible, nuanced and compelling performance.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman