Brandon (Michael Fasbender) lives a carefully cultivated private life which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction, which ranges from masturbation, one night stands and hookers to wild threesomes. When his somewhat needy sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay at his New York apartment, his routine is disrupted and her needs impinge. His attempts at relationships have never been successful, to the point of lowering his libido, Brandon flings himself into another wild night when Sissy is calling for his help. By the time he gets to her, it is almost too late - for both of them.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Sexual addiction is a taboo in just about every culture, but certainly in our world, the West. We can watch unflinchingly in polite company as a film shows murder and mayhem, but put sex in front of us and we're pussies. And we don't even have to be British. Steve McQueen has taken a deceptively simple idea and turned it into a lacerating movie about a brother and sister whose needs are in conflict, even though the needs are not in conflict.
This is writers' stuff, the stuff of observing human nature; it's not just cinematic but a deeply etched reality movie. Simple but not simplistic, McQueen explores what happens when a man's sexual addiction distracts him enough to delay responding to a cry for help from his sister. It is how McQueen tells the story that sets it apart and gives the film its huge buzz - the anticipation factor.
Of course, it could have been any obsession that demands to be fed, but sex is the powderkeg of human behaviour. Consequently Shame is sexually explicit and there is no escaping it. Michael Fassbender, who starred as Bobby Sands in McQueen's knock-out debut, Hunger, delivers for him again, a saturated performance which is like a breath held too long, exploding out unstoppably in rivers of shame.
The film demands a great deal from the audience, including perseverance and wisdom. McQueen plays with the framing of the shots and the use of moving cameras to unsettle us, and to make us be more observant. His actors are all brilliant, with Carey Mulligan delivering her best performance since An Education (which she is unlikely to ever surpass, by the way).
A sense of compression is achieved about both the New York that Brandon inhabits and the emotional world in which he lives. It's fascinating and brave, but ironically because it is so raw, it stays at a distance from us, so perhaps not quite the masterpiece it is touted to be.
Review by Louise Keller:
As tough and as emotionally challenging as his haunting 2008 debut Hunger, Steve McQueen's second feature is one that takes your breath away. If Hunger canvasses food depravation, Shame explores depravation of another kind. Sexual perversion is the obsession of the protagonist, who can only find pleasure from the debauched. The explicit nature of the film is designed to shock with the contrast magnified between an interior and exterior life. It's a sensational performance by Michael Fassbender (who also starred in Hunger) - his impenetrable gaze hides a multitude of emotional colours. His perverted Brandon is brooding, calculating, pained and perpetually uncomfortable in his own skin.
Shame is not easy viewing. While it's dense and confronting as it exposes an obscenely ugly side of life, it also has moments of sublime beauty, when time seems to stand still and life's revulsions are replaced by a seductive innocence.
The film begins with the indelible image of Fassbender lying naked between crumpled, cobalt blue sheets. As the camera gazes at him from above, he is so still, the image could almost be a photograph. But then he blinks, eventually gets up and the illusion is shattered as he, walks naked through the apartment, turns on the voicemail and callously ignores it. We later learn the voicemail is from his wayward, needy sister Sissy (Mulligan), who drops in unannounced not long afterwards.
But before Sissy arrives, we learn more about Brandon. There's a scene in the train where his eyes meet those of a pretty girl. Not a word is spoken but there is no doubt that the unspoken language between them is purely sexual. Prostitutes play a big part in Brandon's life; he likes to look, anticipate and pay no respect. At work, he spends much time masturbating in the toilet. His computer is replete with explicit porn and casual sex is routine - with strangers (male and female).
The scene in which we first meet Sissy naked in the shower, signals we are going to discover her dark side too. We are not wrong. Sissy is the catalyst that puts Brandon into crisis. In her best performance since her Academy Award nominated role in An Education, Mulligan plays the two sides of Sissy beautifully. On one hand, Sissy is a demanding, thoughtless, selfish, and emotional parasite. She is also a vulnerable, exquisite pearl of a woman who sings melancholy into a lingeringly slow, jazzy version of New York New York. Half way through the song, the camera rests on Fassbender's face behind his dry martini and olives. A tear quickly wells in his eye and runs down his cheek like an overfilled cup releasing its load.
Brandon too, gets to show another side of himself when he dates a beautiful work colleague (Nicole Beharie). They have dinner in a restaurant, like any ordinary couple on a date and chat about relationships, commitment, the past and the future. The conversation continues as they leave the restaurant; their faces in and out of shadow as they walk along the street. There's a sense of innocence about the evening which continues the following day in a hotel room, when sensual foreplay comes to an abrupt, unsatisfactory conclusion. The familiarity of a cheap prostitute for sexual satisfaction is missing.
Shame is a complex, unsettling and often harrowing film. I especially love the way music is used, making a powerful statement. There's the fluidity of Glenn Gould's piano for the moments in the film that represent Brandon's real life. The ugly reality of the sordid life in which he lives is described by slow, orchestral chords, often with awkward, discordant intervals. The colour blue also features throughout: a scarf, a poster, the shutters on a building. McQueen uses the cinematic medium with authority, putting his unique stamp on what can only be termed a remarkable work.
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CAST: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Amy Hargreaves, Hannah Ware, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Elizabeth Masucci, Jay Ferraro,
PRODUCER: Iain Canning
DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen
SCRIPT: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Sean Bobbitt
EDITOR: Joe Walker
MUSIC: Harry Escott
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Judy Becker
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 9, 2012