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