‘Shame’ starring Michael Fassbender – A review

4/5 Stars – Out Friday January 13th, 2012

4/5 Stars – Out Friday January 13th, 2012

Shame’ is the bleak and harrowing account of a sex addict. Directed by Steve McQueen and written by Abi Morgan, we are told the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), an attractive professional living and working in New York City. 

As soon as the film begins we are introduced to Brandon’s lifestyle and the flat in which he lives. Empty, bleak and cold, lacking in any personality or emotion, much like him. We hear his sister on the answer phone; begging Brandon to take her call, but her cries go unanswered. 

Brandon’s compact, clean and compulsive lifestyle is easily illustrated in the setting: the small, clinical spaces, modern buildings full of windows and intruding light. Lacking protection and privacy, it feels as if everyone is living in a large glass box, being examined and watched by those below. The claustrophobia is unrelenting. McQueen’s long shots create a tense feeling of unease and even despair, leaving the viewer feeling like they really don’t want to be there, much like Brandon himself. 

It’s when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives in Brandon’s life, much to his annoyance, that the cracks start to show. Her rebellious, colourful and chaotic appearance looks alien in Brandon’s clean and minimal environment. We are soon able to see that the two, although obviously coming from the same damaged background, handle their emotions differently. While Sissy, handles hers very outwardly, Brandon bottles everything up, channelling them internally. 

It’s when Brandon tries to pursue a healthy relationship with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), one of his colleagues; we are able to see just how deep his addiction lies. One scene, perhaps the most honest and touching in the entire film, shows the two out for a meal. We are given the chance to see Brandon as a real, natural, awkward human being, not the robotic addict we have so far encountered. But it’s when the relationship turns intimate Brandon is unable to commit, reminding us again that his addiction is damaging and ever present. 

Director Steve McQueen comes into directing with a background in art, throughout the film this is very apparent. Each shot is beautiful and elegant, but never fails to continue to narrate and support the story being told. Every beautiful shot of the city feels like gasping, coming up for air, before being quickly forced back down into the dark abyss that is Brandon’s life. 

Fassbender is an intense actor, playing a role so mentally and physically demanding could be damaging, but McQueen stated that Fassbender has the ability to turn on and off. Although dialogue was sparse, Fassbender was compelling and demanding on screen.

Mulligan also delivered a shocking performance; her character Sissy was multilayered, damaged and complex. But never once did the actress falter, she was unwavering, as was her beautiful and heartbreaking performance of “New York, New York”. A scene that gave the audience so much insight into the heartbreak the brother and sister had shared, by saying so little but meaning so much. 

Throughout the film Brandon rarely speaks or outwardly shows any emotion whatsoever. The two female characters in his life, Sissy and Marianne, are a gateway into Brandon’s disease and trauma. Without these two vital characters, the audience wouldn’t have much of a chance to see the damaging effect this disease is having.

As Morgan and McQueen both discussed the film in a live Q & A after the preview, Morgan claimed to have based the film in NYC purely by accident. Unsurprisingly, she and McQueen said to have found it difficult for people in England to discuss sex addiction but found it much easier to get people in America talking. 

When asked about the roles of Sissy and Brandon forcing the actors to break their boundaries, McQueen became passionate, stating that actors shouldn’t have boundaries; that’s why they are actors. He claimed to not be interested in movie stars, stating he only wanted to work with actors. Watching the two discuss the film so passionately and seeing a writer and director work so intimately on a film as powerful as ‘Shame’ was truly a refreshing thing to watch. It’s obvious that McQueen and Morgan make a powerful duo, and take an honest, no nonsense approach to filmmaking. 

While ‘Shame’ is not a comfortable film to watch, it is an important film. Addiction is something that lies close to all of us. While alcohol and drugs are something the human race can live without, sex is part of a healthy life and vital to our existence. Perhaps this is why sex addiction is a taboo subject, something so intimate and private is difficult for us to discuss openly and understand. When in reality sex addiction is a disease, and it’s something people live and deal with everyday. People just like Brandon and Sissy, people just like you and me.