Review: Shame

Director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender are collaborating again. Following the success of Hunger they’re back with this tale of addiction in contemporary New York.

Less the Big Apple and more the big New York con perhaps. Carey Mulligan’s plaintive, bitterly strained rendition of “New York, New York” is delivered through the tearful realisation those idealistic dreams have faded. In the audience sits her brother played by Michael Fassbender who watches with steely gaze, feeling his sister’s pain but immune to its arbitrary physical manifestation thanks to years of living the nightmare. This wonderful scene in Steve McQueen’s powerful portrait of a man trying to live life despite his addiction to sex is one of a number of highlights in Shame built almost exclusively on music.

Indeed, the film begins with Harry Escott’s beautiful orchestral score played over various events in the day of Brandon (Fassbender) in which he sleeps with a prostitute and flirts with a woman on a train. A seemingly successful New York businessman, his addiction has been hidden from those who know him. Clearly, close relationships don’t happen often in Brandon’s life – his closest friend is his boss, he shies away from commitment and has no girlfriend, and his only family, sister Sissy (Mulligan), is a mere annoyance he’d rather not have anything to do with. In short, as Hugh Grant’s serial bachelor says in About a Boy, the man is an island.

Shame sees Fassbender and director McQueen back together following their very successful partnership in Hunger. Arguably, McQueen coaxed Fassbender’s finest performance to date out of the West German-born actor in the film about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, so it’s great to see the two working together once more. And, while Shame is less physically demanding, it is no less a physical challenge given that Fassbender spends much of the film naked. Certainly, McQueen asks a lot of his actors – rarely cutting away, utilising long, uncluttered takes; Shame is no exception as Fassbender is required to enter a variety of compromising situations with nothing to hide his modesty. Added to this, McQueen uses the entire frame, frequently filling the central space with nothing more than an obscured view out the window or a mundanely painted wall, putting added emphasis on the actor wherever he maybe in the frame’s extremity. It is little wonder therefore that the director draws on the talents of Fassbender whose tight control of his character’s secretive side life is like an emotional volcano burning within, its benign, serene, good-looking exterior threatening to erupt in sweaty testosterone-fuelled machismo.

“Carey Mulligan’s plaintive, bitterly strained rendition of “New York, New York” is delivered through the tearful realisation those idealistic dreams have faded. In the audience sits her brother played by Michael Fassbender who watches with steely gaze, feeling his sister’s pain but immune to its arbitrary physical manifestation thanks to years of living the nightmare.”

It is pleasing to see McQueen focus his energies on Fassbender, in one scene he simply watches the man run along the sidewalk as the city lays unnaturally dormant around him. Again set to music, McQueen uses images and sounds as the emotive driving force where dialogue is expunged. This scene is one of several focusing in the relationship, or lack thereof, between Brandon and his sister Sissy. Both are troubled by a past that is not revealed and, like female companionship, Brandon shuns the advances of Sissy who hopes to develop a stronger, more meaningful connection. Indeed, Brandon only functions properly at arms-length – the prostitutes he hires have a detachment that allows him to fuel his addiction. When he begins a closer relationship with a work colleague, he is unable to perform sexually in bed.

Pleasingly, McQueen doesn’t judge in Shame, he leaves a lot up to interpretation. Brandon’s addiction appears as debilitating as any other but its destruction is almost entirely emotional while he remains a fine physical specimen. And, while one can impose ideals of friendship, companionship, love, marriage, family and the rest on to this emotionally elusive man, he has made a success out of himself despite his affliction. To what extent he is damaging himself is perhaps only hinted at through Sissy’s more outward cry for help when she slashes her wrists while he is in bed with two women.

That directly influences my favourite scene in the film. Early on, while on a train, Brandon witnesses a good-looking fellow passenger exchanging flirtatious gestures with him. When she stands up to leave, he stands behind her, touching her hand on the standing rail where it is revealed she is wearing a wedding ring. She vacates the train quickly and disappears in the crowd of other commuters, her gait rather hurried. Brandon briefly looks for her but can’t find the woman. What we see in this scene is Brandon’s interpretation of the woman’s gestures, his obsessiveness acknowledging her brief smile or the placing of her hands on her lap as a sexual come on. Her hurried exit is the result – an escape from this creepy man who first stared at her for a long period of time, then touched her hand and began following her off the train. Here McQueen suggests a darker, more outwardly abusive side to Brandon’s addiction that is perhaps the inevitable conclusion to a life that fails to gain help. McQueen brilliantly rekindles this scene later hinting that, despite Sissy’s near-death experience and Brandon’s helplessness towards a sister he obviously cares about, he is still stuck in a debilitating cycle.

Shame is undoubtedly an engaging character study, dare I say an expose on a little understood addiction. It is also very well directed by Steve McQueen who again shies away from dramatic convention in favour of designing his narrative based on a series of moments to draw out nuances of character. However, his focus, as it is, on a financially successful New Yorker who is about as far removed from the notion of the “everyman” as is Fassbender’s clothes from his body in the film, makes you wonder how the other ninety-eight percent of men would get on with the same affliction. Sex addiction is clearly obtrusive and debilitating but Brandon, a twinkle in his eye, rugged good-looks, charm-fuelled and six-pack ready, has the additional issue of being utterly desirable to women. Perhaps it is here where McQueen took some liberties in dramatic construction given the alternative of an overweight, welfare-homed simpleton with no communication skills furiously masturbating for two hours.

Yet Shame highlights once again the talents of McQueen, his ability to uniquely portray character in an interesting, powerful way, and Fassbender’s skill at bringing them to life. With strong supporting turns, particularly from the sensational Carey Mulligan, and Harry Escott’s music beating at the heart of the story, this tale of “New York, New Yorkers” is a richly detailed character study of a hollow life.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Released: 2011 / Genre: Drama / Country: UK / IMDB

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Alex Withrow Reply

    EXCELLENT review of not only my favorite movie from 2011, but one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, ever. I loved how you pointed out how important music is to the film, which isn’t discussed enough in relation to Shame, but is something I couldn’t agree more with.

    Also, sex addiction is something that is very misunderstood, especially in pop culture, and Shame is definitely an exposé of that. Really good review, Dan.

  2. mark Reply

    Haven’t seen it, but your account of your favourite scene somehow reminds me of a bit out of Joyce’s Ulysses (which was later included in Joseph Strick’s film) when the middle-aged protangonist Leo Bloom sees a hot little totty on the seashore and starts masterbating, his onanistic (is there such a word?) routine ruined when the young lass gets up and starts hobbling away, at which point Bloom realises she is partly crippled and loses interest.

    I would argue sex addiction isn’t that unfamiliar with the mainstream – remember the episode of South Park where the boys are forced to go to a group therapy session that includes Michael Douglas, Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Dave Letterman and Dave Duchovny? It’s an age old thing (and something which fuelled the psychological underbelly of Ulysses) – outside of immediate metaphysical concerns (like family, work, recreation, art other forms of addiction) all men really think about are their dicks and stomachs.

    The problem here is, unlike our stomachs, our dicks don’t increase in size with age.

  3. Scott Lawlor Reply

    I loved this review, almost as much as I loved the film!!

    You make a very good point about Fassy being a bit easy on the eye and therefore finding it easy to get a lay, yet that isn’t really what he wants, he wants the non emotional sex….

    Great review my friend

  4. Evan Crean Reply

    Haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my list to check out soon based on your review.

  5. Rodney Reply

    great review, Dan.I too haven’t seen this film yet, but all the good things I’m hearing about it have moved it high on my “must see” list.

  6. Chris Reply

    Solid review, Dan. I had a few minor problems with the film, not a whole lot of character development, perhaps a little repetitive, going from one conquest to the next, however was a good character study nonetheless of Brandon’s situation.
    To me, the question of blame is interesting, selfish and uncaring Brandon is kind of portrayed as a victim of our modern society and its pitfalls. As you say, McQueen doesn’t judge in Shame, so the audience has to make up their mind what to think. Yes, that train scene was intense, wasn’t it! A hollow life indeed, well said.

  7. DEZMOND Reply

    I do love films which go deep into the psychology, since it’s my professional area. And I do adore Michael Fass My Benders, especially in this edition 😉
    But it will be difficult for me to make myself watch Mulligan. I don’t like her at all.

  8. Mettel Ray Reply

    You know why I love this movie, I love how every review I read is so different because this movie offers so much to interpretation. Each blogger brings out something new, a new nuance the others might have missed.
    Brilliant movie and a great review!

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