I saw Shame on the evening of 1st January 2012 in lower east side Manhattan. I’d drank excessively the night before, as one is want to do on New Year’s Eve, but the hangover was so bad I was kept in bed most of the next day. At around 5pm I emerged from my slumber and we managed to walk to a diner, where I gingerly picked at a burger and some fries. On the walk home we passed the Sunshine Cinema, apparently something of an art-house landmark in NYC. Anyway, faced with a choice between A Dangerous Method and Shame, neither of which we knew anything about, we went for the latter. An excellent choice – not just because it’s a great film, but also because it’s all about our holiday destination, NYC, and includes the second-most hummed song of the trip, sang by Carey Mulligan (the first being Downtown, if you care) …
Steve McQueen’s Shame is a bleak but compelling portrait of Brandon, a dysfunctional, emotionally-alienated sex addict. Beautifully shot and expertly directed, it features outstanding performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.
Brandon (Fassbender) is a slick young executive living in New York, outwardly successful but internally tormented by his compulsive urge for casual sex. He is reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho – professionally suave and together, personally slightly unhinged and heading for disaster (albeit not to the same extent!). When troubled sister Sissy turns up at his flat and intrudes on his well-ordered routines, Brandon is forced to confront his problems more directly, and things begin to unravel.
Fassbender delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, superbly portraying Brandon’s vulnerability, loneliness and unsatisfying existence in the heart of Manhattan. And Mulligan complements perfectly as the fragile Sissy, herself battling personal inadequacies and the siblings’ shared, troubled past.
McQueen crafts the tale through lingering close-ups and long takes. There are graphic scenes of sex and nudity, but they are rarely erotic, presenting both Brandon’s extreme behaviour and his joyless and introspective isolation.
At times Shame is slow-moving and McQueen offers no easy resolution to the issues raised. Indeed some criticism seems to arise from the fact that McQueen makes no attempt to understand or resolve Brandon’s situation – merely presenting a standstill look at his life, a snapshot – neither beginning at the beginning nor ending at the end. This snapshot in itself however is worthy of praise. Driven by star performances, McQueen has made an intensely dark and gritty second feature film.