Film Review: Shame

by Mark Walker

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Director: Steve McQueen.
Screenplay: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Robert Montano.

In 2008, director Steve McQueen made his directorial debut with the devastating drama, Hunger, about the last six weeks in the life of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Michael Fassbender was his lead in that unflinching portrayal. Three years later, they reunite for this equally powerful drama about sex-addiction.

Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a successful New York businessman. He leads a comfortable lifestyle, including that of a bachelor, where he spends most of his evenings sleeping with different women.

It all seems normal on the surface but the unexpected arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) upturns a deeper side to him. It appears that his sexual appetite may be more serious than he’s been willing to confront.

Michael Fassbender has been steadily building a reputation for himself since he came to attention in McQueen’s debut and followed it up with consistent turns in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

He’s an actor in very high demand at the moment and judging by this performance alone, you can see why. This is as good as any he has delivered, if not better.

Sometimes, actors go above and beyond the call of duty; Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant and Charlotte Gainsbourg in AntiChrist are a notable couple. Fassbender can be, courageously, included amongst them.

He exposes himself in every sense of the word and delivers the most fearless and vulnerable performance of 2011. His portrayal of Brandon is a deeply complex piece of work.

He’s an enigmatic character that grooms and dresses immaculately. He takes pride in his appearance but not his actions. He cannot connect with people on an intimate level and as a result, develops a voracious appetite for sexual encounters and material.

His lack of connection also extends to his emotionally fragile sister, who so obviously needs his help and it’s the very arrival of his sibling that brings his shame to the forefront.

His use of pornography, prostitutes and masturbation can’t be hidden anymore.

This is when he has to confront his own self-loathing and sexual addictions. His encounters are all meaningless and any that do show meaning, he can’t perform. This is a truly harrowing character study of the failure or inability to truly connect with people – especially in the times and congested environments we live in.

Despite the numerous sexual encounters, there is nothing erotic about this film. It’s purely focused on the turmoil of one man’s spiralling journey of self-harm.

Carey Mulligan cannot go unmentioned for her emotional performance here also. Her role is not as in depth as the protagonist and she has less to work with but she’s the catalyst for the unravelling of the film and brings a much needed heart into the mix.

McQueen’s direction is near flawless and meticulous in it’s detail. He takes a step back from his actors and captures moments in facial expressions and eye contact.

Words don’t always need to be said and if anything, it’s all the better for it. He allows an intelligence from his audience and he’s aided by some stark and clinical cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, who captures the emptiness in these damaged peoples lives.

I have now lost count of the amount of films and performances of 2011 that were, unforgivably, overlooked at the Oscars. This is most certainly one of them. The title of this film should be shouted continuously in the faces of the Academy voters. It’s a disgrace it was omitted.

This may prove to be a difficult or controversial film for some people. It’s certainly not for the prudish or sensitive of heart but I, for one, think it’s essential viewing.

A powerful and provocative collaboration between Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender has developed and I can only hope they continue to make more films in the future.

Shame is now available on DVD.

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