Shame – Award winner Steve McQueen’s latest film- takes a bold and uncompromising look at life ruled by sex addiction. It’s raw, unflattering, and most of all its honest; exposing an all-consuming affliction that is so rarely explored on film.
This is the second time McQueen and Michael Fassbender have worked together in a Director/actor partnership that’s proving pretty successful. McQueen demands a lot from his actors with such hard-hitting raw material, and the ‘Fass’ has yet to disappoint; instead delivering two incredible performances. Excitingly the pair will collaborate again in 2013 for Twelve years a slave about a man sold into slavery in 1800’s New York.
In Shame Fassbender plays a wealthy New Yorker Brandon Sullivan, whose life –or rather morbid existence- centres round casual emotionless sex, prostitutes, porn, and masturbation. Everything he does is motivated by his affliction. His work and social life alike are ruled by it. Brandon is such a cold character, avoiding intimacy or any emotional connections. But he hides it well under a thin veil of ‘normal’ human behaviour. Socialising with his boss; together lapping up Manhattans night life, he even takes a colleague out for a romantic dinner. But he is simply going through the motions. It’s become routine for Brandon. Methodical. But this strange equilibrium is quickly shattered when his attention seeking, needy sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay. Both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan give exceptional performances. Even their accents are surprisingly good. And though Fassbender couldn’t shake his Irish completely they easily worked that into the script.
At first I questioned McQueen’s casting choice, putting an Irish and British actor in the lead roles of a New York based film, especially when there are so many great American -and specifically New York- actors out there. But although it’s shot in New York it’s easy to imagine Shame set closer to home. The bleak, cold, wet streets of Manhattan, filmed in washed out hues of blue and greys felt surprisingly British. And in fact it was McQueen’s intention to film in London. However, with few people ready to open up about their addiction McQueen relocated to New York where he found experts and sufferers willing to share their experiences. And it’s the perfect setting, with locations that creatively reflect and parallel Brandon’s character.
McQueen fills the beautiful, all-encompassing city with hard-hitting performances, intense dialogue and sparse but memorable and hypnotic music that punctuates significant moments in the film. Fassbender effortlessly holds the viewer’s attention, drawing you in to such an uncomfortable and tense atmosphere. Scenes between Brandon and Sissy are particularly hard not to shy away from. While there is no real emotional connection between the two, physically they seem too close; standing naked in front of each other, and at one point Brandon straddles Sissy as they argue, wearing nothing but an unravelled towel. It’s this relationship which forces him to unravel and at first it’s easy to empathise with him, burdened with looking after his male attention craving, vulnerable sister. But as she starts to fall apart its Sissy you feel sorry for as she tries desperately to reconnect with her brother and bring him back from the brink of self-destruction. I was completely blown away by Carey Mulligan’s performance. Admittedly and ashamedly I had typecast her as shy, reserved, innocent, and playful, playing only weak characters. Having only seen her in An Education, Never Let Me Go, and Drive, it was hard to imagine her as anything else, especially not the mesmerising, Brassy, man stealing woman she transforms into in Shame. I will never make the mistake of judging an actors future work based on past performances again (If this were a new years resolution I’m not going to lie, I think I’m likely to break it). She is the perfect and complete opposite to Michael Fassbenders remarkable portrayal of such a broken, tormented and unsatisfied man. I will never question McQueen again. Another resolution I might break (I can’t help it I’m judgy).
It’s a simple but incredibly effective story that without its stellar cast, and Director Steve McQueen at the helm, could easily have been disappointing and unremarkable. Instead it was dramatic, moving and emotive. Tugging at every heart-string I have. I became very attached to these characters and found myself rooting for both of them. But its left open-ended and the viewer if left wondering what will happen to the siblings. Does Brandon overcome his addiction? Will Sissy and Brandon reconnect? There are so many questions left without answers but it’s the perfect end. We’re not spoon fed every last detail. McQueen doesn’t insult his audience by assuming we can’t work it out for ourselves; as films so often do.
It’s a beautifully uninhibited film and I recommend anyone over the age of 18 watch it. Though with my recommendation come guidelines. Firstly don’t watch it with your parents. There are several very graphic, intimate and awkward scenes of a sexual nature made a thousand times more uncomfortable if you watch it with your folks. You don’t want to share the experience of Michael Fassbender’s privates swinging across your screen together. Secondly don’t eat loud foods or anything that rustles. It’s a quiet film and it took me half an hour to open a crisp packet trying not to disturb anyone. Eat afterwards as you’ll have plenty to talk about over the dinner table after watching Shame.