***originally written 11 January 2012***
Some films are driven by narrative, others by the notion of forwarding an idea or opinion. Then there are films that don’t attempt to explain or persuade, but simply to illuminate. Shame is such a film. A character study that points it’s focus at a subject matter still incredibly taboo in most circles, and one still more likely to be met with ridicule rather than compassion or understanding; sex addiction.
The second collaboration between actor Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen (no, not that one), Shame focuses on Brandon, a successful businessman living in New York. He has a minimal apartment, clearly values self-image – not a hair out of place – and, when sat around a table at a cocktail bar, is indistinguishable from his co-workers. Except that beneath the surface there is a maelstrom going on.
Brandon frequently masturbates at work, his computer is riddled with pornography, he regularly hires prostitutes and is not averse to prowling underground sex clubs. Yet for all of these sexually charged behaviours, Brandon is revealed as a man with crippling intimacy issues. His longest relationship has been four months, and when he attempts to instigate a relationship with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), it ends in failure, impotency, shame. Brandon is an immensely private and controlled individual, cooped up in his own particular addiction, sadly replacing emotion connections – which are far too difficult to deal with – with fleeting physical contact.
Enter his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Sissy is a very different individual; more extrovert and emotionally available though not without her own problems. Where Brandon is scared by genuine intimacy, Sissy craves it. She’s a singer, and a drifter, and she happens into Brandon’s controlled environment (despite his best efforts to ignore her phone calls) and immediately causes chaos for him. They share connective tissue, an unspoken, damaged past which they are both dealing with in different ways. During the span of the film they both encounter the other in a moment of naked vulnerability. Compare their reactions. Sissy’s stay with Brandon is a difficult one, and proves to be a catalyst, bringing both of their problems to the fore.
It is difficult to convey in words here just how complete the performances by both parties are. Fassbender, who is in every scene of the movie, is simply astonishing. Utterly believable, he makes Brandon an incredibly complex individual, one the audience openly feels sympathetic toward, despite behaviour which at times appears awkward and self-absorbed. McQueen sets this up in expert fashion, opening the film with a glorious ten minutes which establishes Brandon’s life perfectly; his cravings, compulsions, routines and loneliness.
Mulligan is equally brilliant, though featured far less. Her Sissy breathes unpredictability and warmth into an otherwise clinical environment. She wears her heart on her sleeve. And though it might be a cliché, the scene in the film in which she sings is genuinely, literally, show stopping. A very early contender for scene of the year.
And then there is the film itself. Like Brandon, it is carefully controlled and composed. Largely built from long-sustained takes, it moves calmly, methodically. Every shot seems perfectly judged. McQueen’s film does draw attention to itself, to its showmanship, but that only adds another layer of precision to what unfolds. McQueen is showing us Brandon and Fassbender is realising him.
The by-product of such precision is that when there are occasional slips, they tend to announce themselves. So subtle are the nuances throughout that when, in the final act, the story moves toward more traditional dramatic tropes, they feel a little too Hollywood, a little too soap opera. McQueen was doing fine without them, and it is questionable whether they are really needed. But even this, in the face of all the good work on display, feels like a minor quibble.
The question remains unanswered either way as to whether Brandon and Sissy will be able to break their respective cycles. Is Brandon more aware at the end of the film? Or is he moving back into denial, back into the familiar? These are questions which the film prompts purposefully. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) have brought us a sombre, yet emotionally powerful film that attempts to illuminate a type of person, an often misunderstood type of crisis, and asks us to discuss it afterward. A commendable goal exceedingly well executed, despite a couple of clumsy missteps. Don’t rule out this one riding high in my best-of-year list 11 months from now. Impressive.