From the off, even before the film itself begins, Shame has created a rather unique air about it. It’s clearly a film about sex, but the marketing indicates an oblique approach that has little to do with titillation. London-born director Steve Mcqueen’s previous film (his debut) was similarly adroit in trumpeting its subject matter. Entitled Hunger, the film won great critical praise and numerous awards including a BAFTA for best newcomer. This followed McQueen’s accolades in his previous incarnation as fine artist, whose video works earned him commendations such as the Turner Prize in 1999. Shame, then, represents a celebrated and unique voice, embarking on that difficult second record.
Brandon (Fassbender) is a relatively successful, mid 30-something working in New York. Something of a lone wolf, Brandon is perpetually single. This suits his lifestyle perfectly. His sexual appetite is unbridled, whether bedding dates and prostitutes, flirting, masturbating or facilitating any of the above, his actions are always sexually motivated. However, as an early comparison between Brandon and his obnoxious boss (James Badge Dale) demonstrates, he’s far from the slobbering slave to his loins one might associate with the term ‘sex addict’. Brandon is refined, charming and possessing of a quiet intensity that despite drawing people to him, threatens to devour him whole. His insatiable desire for sex is forcibly put on hold when his younger sibling Sissy (Mulligan) comes to town needing a place to stay.
Their volatile relationship threatens to usurp the calm of Brandon’s controlled environment. Her presence complicates the regularity of Brandon’s self-prescribed treatment for his addiction. Several elements out of his control, Sissy’s arrival, the discovery of certain on files on his work computer and a particularly challenging date - all conspire to send Brandon spiralling into his own private hell.
Michael Fassbender is the soul and centre of the entire film. Present in every scene, he tempers his cool exterior with well-judged humour and glimpses of vulnerability, allowing us access to this curious character. He performs fearlessly, freely exhibiting the gamut of emotions and physical demands that the part requires of him. Aesthetically he reminds one of a darker, weightier version of Ewan McGregor - emanating a constant sense of unpredictability and danger. Here he concretes his reputation as a rising force to be reckoned with; the buzz about him is wholly justified. It’s easy to imagine ten years from now he will be considered heavyweight, to be mentioned in the same breath as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. His most powerful scenes are shared with the increasingly impressive Carey Mulligan (An Education, Drive). McQueen prefers to shoot them in long, unbroken takes that draw you in - allowing electric performances and and absence of cuts to lull you into the room with them.
It’s an intoxicating two hours: a heady mix of suppressed emotions and unlimited desires. We’re invited to experience the inner life of this man - a surreal window through which to experience the world of this proud but damaged creature who prowls the nighttime streets of New York City like a vampire. Ultimately the journey becomes purposefully suffocating, with McQueen and Fassbender skilfully conveying Brandon’s sense of entrapmentand inability to function outside of his addiction. Shame is a claustrophobic drama of intensity and urgency. It will make many recent films seem trivial and tame, a strange and unique beast indeed. It’s mature drama, bravely tackling complicated subject matter for those looking to experience something different. It’s original, visceral and disquieting - in the way only cinema can be.
Dir: Steve McQueen UK drama, 2011, 101 mins;
Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie
Premiered March 8