Dir. Steve McQueen, UK, 2011, 101 mins
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Review by Francesca Neagle
Brandon (Fassbender) is a thirty-something corporate drone living comfortably inNew York, balancing his busy job and a very active sex life. When his self-harming, wayward sister Sissy (Mulligan) turns up at his apartment unannounced,Brandon’s carefully managed lifestyle spirals out of control. Both give utterly convincing, disturbing, and mesmerising performances. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy assuresBrandon, “We just come from a bad place.”
McQueen uses a number of extended shots, held for just too long to be comfortable. Sissy’s singing-for-her-supper in an upmarket bar to an audience, which includes Brandon and his boss David (Dale), is one of them. She sings a desperate, almost painfully slow, melancholic version of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. The prolonged close-up on Sissy’s face for the duration of the song borders on unbearable. Brandoncries. It’s emotional: one of a deliberately small handful of honest and intimate segments of the entire film: The polar opposite of both Brandon and Sissy in their daily behaviour. We’ve witnessed Brandonin a variety of bedroom poses with prostitutes, watched him viewing a lot of pornography; we’ve even see him use the toilet. Thus far there has been more screen time dedicated to his buttocks than his cheekbones; but Sissy singing and Brandoncrying is differently intimate. Shame is a movie about being unfulfilled, in a time and age where anything is possible. Her song is an innocent, timeless metaphor for the extremes to which Brandon and Sissy will take this. They are damaged, but why? It doesn’t matter. Speculation about their background is allowed to run concurrently without a need to dilute the plot with it.
It’s important to understand that, despite dubious morals,Brandonisn’t a figure of disgust. To Fassbender’s credit, he’s a very likeable character: From time to time, he even comes very close to making tangible connections and we are cheering him on to succeed. But his sex addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder are too conscious a weight. His computer hard drive at work has been taken away, he masturbates in the office toilets, he is even on the prowl during his commute. A pretty young woman on his subway train returns his glances, coquettishly at first. It is one of a pair of scenes forming narrative bookends. She eventually flashes her wedding ring to ward him off. It’s a red rag to a bull though, andBrandonstampedes through the station to try and find her.
Sissy is an emotional and physical mess throughout. It is intimated in a single line of dialogue that they shared a rough childhood. Despite acting as a significant catalyst that knocks Brandondeeper into chaos, Sissy is equally fascinating and fully realised, although her troubled “cutter” character, as well as her effect on Brandon, sometimes borders on cliché. Brandon’s boss, whom she sleeps with in Brandon’s bed, neglects his own family in order to hit on passing women. Disgusted and perhaps excited, certainly frustrated, by the noise, Brandonescapes for a run through the nocturnal streets: a beautiful tracking shot which shows a city filled with characters trapped behind glass, just out of Brandon’s reach.
These central characters and their inability to find some lasting solution to what ails them is the crux of the film. Shame is a difficult watch, and some sceptics might suggest it is a gratuitous film that glorifies promiscuity. But despite a relentless abundance of sexual content, it’s hard to argue that any of these encounters should have been taken out or toned down. McQueen is a provocateur and his characters’ woes will stay with you.
Shame is released on DVD/Blu-Ray on 14th May 2012.
- Key cast Interviews with Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan
- Q & A with Michael Fassbender