Director: Steve McQueen
Michael Fassbender is one of the most captivating actors currently working. Every performance commands your attention (and I should know having recently gone on a Fassbender film marathon) and amongst all those powerful performances his role as Brandon in Shame is one of the stand out roles – if not his best to date. “As Brandon he is physically and emotionally exposed, delivering an honest and brave performance of a man trying to find a lie from transitory and disparate parts.” (927, Simon Ward, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There’s a quiet intensity to Brandon, well Fassbender too, that makes his character so intriguing … and yes attractive! He’s not a big talker which actually makes his performance all the more mesmerizing. He conveys a wealth of emotion, admittedly with lust being the predominant emotion, with his eyes and facial expressions.
More than anything Brandon is a conflicted character. He’s trying to maintain the appearance of his outward life – a young man with a successful job in New York City – while at the same time trying to deal with his sexual addiction. Sissy’s unexpected appearance forces Brandon to begin to deal with, or confront, many of his issues, predominantly his sexual addiction. His home is not longer his own and his sanctuary, where he can be himself, has been removed. As Simon Ward says “his cold but functional life is thrown into disorder with the arrival of his sister, Sissy, a superbly damaged Carey Mulligan” (927) And she is so very superbly damaged! I’ve said before I think that Carey Mulligan is one of the most talented rising stars to come out of cinema in recent years. She is the perfect foil for Fassbender’s Brandon. Where he has internalized everything, keeping it all under tight control, Sissy has become an extrovert. Their relationship is a strange one that has some underlying sexual tension to it.
McQueen has said that he kept the film very open-ended which is true, it is. As such it throws up a multitude of questions like where do Brandon and Sissy go from here? Does Brandon every get a handle on his addiction? But it also made me wonder what had happened to Brandon and Sissy when they were younger. There are moments when you see through the cracks in Sissy’s cheerful facade to the damaged person underneath.
From the subject matter of the film there is a lot of nudity as you would expect. Both Fassbender and Mulligan seem perfectly at ease with it. There is a somewhat voyeuristic nature to McQueen’s choice of shots. A number of scenes are shot from behind the characters creating the feeling that we are overhearing a private conversation. It makes for an interesting visual tone. “Shot in long takes, many scenes play out in real time.” (927) And his New York has a different feel to it too – striking a careful balance between being a seedy underworld and the bright over the top tourist traps. In essence he creates a realistic feel to a big city.
The subject matter of this film, sexual addiction, is one that is still very much in the shadows and could it could easily have become a sordid film. However that hasn’t been the case thanks to McQueen and Fassbender who handle a delicate subject with a directness that is refreshing. They maintain a sense of realness without passing any judgement on either the addiction or the sort of lifestyle it can lead to. Shame is a really interesting film with masterful performances from its two leads.