Steve McQueen’s almost unanimous appointment as one of the UK’s most interesting, intelligent and respected directors may, to some, have seemed a little premature for a man with only one film under his belt, had that film not been 2008’s searing Hunger – the relentlessly powerful portrayal of the events leading up to the death of IRA nationalist Bobby Sands. Hunger was remarkable not only for McQueen’s brave, nuanced direction, but also for Michael Fassbender’s incredible self-flagellating performance as the desperately and increasingly emaciated Sands.
The two unite once more in Shame, in which Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, an outwardly successful New Yorker whose wiley ways with the fairer sex may make him the envy of his friends and the subject of fascination amongst female peers. It’s all just the outward manifestation of a secret – a nagging realisation – that Brandon keeps to himself: that he is, in fact, a sex addict, and it’s the unwelcome arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) that threatens the carefully crafted social veneer he so carefully maintains to protect others (and himself) from facing the fact.
McQueen is all too aware that a film about sex addiction could so easily degenerate into the kind of soggy, depressingly titillating guff that used to be synonymous with late-night Channel 5, David Duchovny and a rancid sock, so he deftly and succinctly portrays the entire routine-led, rhythmic nature of Brandon’s addiction within the first ten minutes: we see the cyclic lifestyle of compulsions leading to rehearsed and pragmatic methods (prostitutes, pornography, casual encounters, crafty workplace hand-shandys) of sating them. Were aren’t actually privy to a great deal of Brandon’s wanton philandering as, by the end of this opening scene, we know everything we need to know about him - the rest of the film’s runtime can be used to tell the ensuing story.
This condensed introduction is a fantastically efficient device, and McQueen gets any obligatory nudity out of the way in a similarly brisk and unfussy fashion: both Fassbender and Mulligan are blithely and deliberately in the nip right at the beginning of the film, almost as if a weary, teacherly McQueen is rubbing his temples and saying, ‘You’ve seen it all now, can we please just move on?’ It’s a refreshingly assured and mature move, leaving Fassbender’s later erotic scenes free of any ‘LOOK AT HIS KNOB!’ sniggers and distractions.
Mulligan’s Sissy lies at the opposite end of the spectrum of monogamy to Brandon - she craves companionship and intimacy, with scenes between her and Fassbender scattering titbits of information alluding to a dysfunctional upbringing they share but are trying, in their own different ways, to forget. Their common history is the wedge between them: Mulligan is a singer, an extrovert, while Fassbender is her still-waters, introverted antithesis.
Mulligan is excellent: vulnerable and exuberant in equal doses, her inclusion in the story making us wonder how two such vastly different personalities could emerge from the kiln of a single, somehow-defective household. These are questions that aren’t answered; explaining precisely why sex addiction (and, by extension, any addiction) can occur isn’t what McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan are trying to do. Brandon is just a man with issues – that’s it – and Shame is the story of a player, not a game.
Shame is a very low-key film though, and those expecting as rip-roaring shaggathon through the neon jungle of New York may be affronted by the character study they end up receiving
And this is, without a doubt, Fassbender’s film. He is truly brilliant: cool, confident, smooth, troubled, desperate, afraid, ashamed and disgusted, all eventually folding in over one another, creating a flawed, yet predominantly very human character, whose affliction becomes an inward battle you really want him to win. Despite his lifestyle of seminal profligacy Brandon remains a likeable and sympathetic figure throughout; he’s no Patrick Bateman – he’s an everyman, a nice man, only one with a problem he doesn’t understand. McQueen paints him as a true victim of his disease, taking a refreshingly neutral standpoint in the process - one as far removed from the Britpop funk of Trainspotting’s addicts or the world-weary narcissism of Chuck Palahniuk’s as it’s possible to get.
Brandon inhabits a drab, muted New York, a 24hr city where gratification for any itch is easily obtained, yet despite an American setting (and decent accents to match from the two mains) the film does still feel resolutely British: still shots, quiet scenes, calm pacing, naturalistic dialogue. Shame is bereft of cinematic pretensions, with the occasionally obtrusive, sombre piano cues the only signposts to its artsy-fartsy credentials.
The dialogue is keenly observed throughout, with two scenes in particular (one comprised of childishy-regressive interplay between Brandon and Sissy, the other seeing Brandon on an uncharacteristic date with a co-worker) displaying a genuinely self-effacing zip of authenticity that McQueen and Morgan have bottled brilliantly.
Unfortunately this air of authenticity doesn’t quite extend as far as the last ten minutes, which smack just the tiniest bit of convenient contrivance, yet this brief whiff of artifice is the tiniest fly in an otherwise unblemished pot of luxury, tingly lube.
Shame is a very low-key film though, and those expecting as rip-roaring shaggathon through the neon jungle of New York may be affronted by the character study they end up receiving, yet those with some idea of what they’ll be getting will find little to grumble about.
It’s not a harrowing, Requiem for a Dream or Tyrannosaur-esque crotch-punch of a film either; more a fascinating depiction of a man coming to terms with a condition still awaiting society’s verdict as to its actual veracity. As such, is deserves to be seen, if not for its subject matter then for the tentative story of addiction its committed performances tell so honestly.
You could, in fact, replace the sex with any other addictive vice (and, while we’re at it, Brandon with a female character) and the film would carry exactly the same weight, as it’s the inward-facing microcosm of solipsism that addiction causes that Shame explores. Smack, crack, Baileys, bongs or bonking – it doesn’t matter, the symptoms are the same, and – as far as Shame is concerned – so are the inevitable repercussions.
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