We review Shame – Gripping performances and haunting visuals but shamefully pointless

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With Hunger, the 2008 dramatization of IRA member Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike, artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen (the young black guy, not the old “Bullit” guy), showed us the emotionally harrowing vision of a man denying himself a physical need in the pursuit of an ideal.

Now in Shame, McQueen introduces us to the fictional Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, who also starred in Hunger), a successful businessman with an intense sex addiction whose unceasing indulgence of this most primal of physical needs threatens to ruin him and those around him.

Well, at least I think it does. You see, Shame is unfortunately a film that is as frustratingly vague as it is memorably haunting.

In his spartan, ink-washed New York apartment is where we first meet Brandon as he goes about his daily routine. Meaningless sexual encounters and cold Chinese food; he consumes both with a frequency and frigidity that borders on automaton. He displays momentary flashes of passion and devastating charm though, but only when in the pursuit of his next sexual conquest. With the exception of his friendship – although that might be too strong a term – with his boss David (James Badge Dale), the only human connections in his life are the naked ones he pays for.

Cutting through this white-noise of joyless but physically necessary sex is a pleading voice on his answering machine, continuously begging him to “please pick up.” The voice belongs to Brandon’s lounge-singer sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who unexpectedly arrives like a bohemian chic tornado to disrupt his disturbingly structured life of trawling for one night stands, falling asleep to the lurid glow of porn on his laptop and scheduled masturbatory sessions in his work toilet cubicle.

But as the bone-white web of knife scars on Sissy’s forearms attest, she’s packed a bag of her very own psychoses.

With Harry Escot’s ghostly score as a backdrop, McQueen paints a grim and bleak vision of a film, devoid of cheap titillation and eroticism, with masterfully languid shots that make the most of Fassbender’s subtly nuanced but nevertheless gut-wrenching performance. One particular, almost impossibly long tracking shot of Brandon as he jogs the night-time streets of New York, after being unceremoniously evicted from his own bed so that Sissy can have a drunken and adulterous sexual liaison, deserves special mention not just for the technical brilliance, but also for how much raw emotion Fassbender manages to pour into something as simple as running.

Brandon is simply a study in tragic restraint (or at least the attempt thereof), with a constant broiling sea just beneath the surface as he continuously tries and fails to confront his own emotional shortcomings. This is an almost torturously gripping performance that leads to me adding my voice to the chorus of boos and hisses aimed at the Academy for the exclusion of Fassbender’s name from the ballots at the Oscars earlier in the year.

Mulligan is certainly not the weak link in this production either, as she turns in a brave and daring performance. In one scene McQueen has the camera firmly fixed on her painfully expressive face as she delivers a heartbreaking rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York“. The camera does linger a bit too long, as McQueen allows her to sing the entire song with barely a cut away, thus ruining any momentum in the narrative up until that point, but for her part, Mulligan nails it.

Unfortunately, the directorial self-indulgence in that scene is indicative of the biggest problem that Shame faces. I almost got the feeling that McQueen was so enamoured with how he would be depicting this admittedly controversial topic, that he forgot to actually include what he was trying to say.

Despite the arresting and intriguing start to the film, the narrative fails to fully explore any of the ideas it puts forward. There’s an immediate sense of wrongness to Brandon and Sissy’s relationship from the moment they share their first on-screen meeting, as he returns home one night from his nondescript job to find her in his shower. Dark hints of incest skirt around the edges of your mind as he confronts her, irrespective of her uncomfortable nakedness. But none of this is ever addressed or even given a cursory glance. Their clearly broken history is just simply left as a complete mystery.

And despite the at-times very explosive conflict between them, the characters still manage to feel under-developed. Sissy’s arrival in Brandon’s world may cause them both to go on a journey of self-discovery, fraught with some very explicit encounters, both emotionally and physically, but you can’t help but shake the feeling that by the time the credits roll on the admittedly predictable final scene, that these are still the very same characters that you met right at the beginning of this grim tale, with nothing having changed at all.

Despite the decidedly skilled attention to sensory detail he displays in the tackling of a rather taboo subject, McQueen fails to really provide any substance to this story, and were it not for the truly magnetic and courageous performances from it’s stars, this film would merely have been a technically laudable dud.

Which would really have been a shame.

Last Updated: May 14, 2012

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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