Film review: Shame

16:00, Feb 18 2012
SIBLINGS' RIBALDRY: Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender get reacquainted.

Shame R18, 101 mins 12

The very best of this film can be found in the early moments, when Brandon (the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender, astonishing in his focus) is on a train, fascinated with the woman opposite. She, an auburn beauty with a touch of the librarian, meets his gaze, explores it, returns it. In that long shared look lies so much: he sees her unavailability, she sees his lust and experience in this sort of thing, and weighs up the offer. He presents only himself – what you see is what you will get.

Brandon is a bad boy, suited and booted and ready for business, and the film takes many opportunities to show how often women give in to such men. But he is not really malicious, rather malfunctioning. He is addicted, in some sense, to sex, in all its forms. Sex is a virus that has a deathly grip on Brandon, and may yet take his sanity. Women sleep over, prostitutes call, his hard drive is clogged, his onanism knows no bounds. But it is never enough.

SIBLINGS' RIBALDRY: Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender get reacquainted.

Over the course of days, as women drift through his silky blue sheets, an increasingly whining voice leaves messages on the answer-phone. Turns out it's his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who, like an exoplanet on an eccentric orbit, wobbles her way back into his life. You can tell from the faraway look under her wavy bob and op-shop outfits that

Sissy is a freight train of damaged goods, but Brandon has no space in his life for her. Sissy is trying to be a singer, so Brandon and his married boss head to a bar to see her perform – the camera holds on her for the length of a fair rendition of New York New York. When it looks like his boss and Sissy will hook up, Brandon's face is a rare display of suppressed rage and grief.

Otherwise Brandon haunts the furious city like a ghost, an incubus. In one shot lasting several minutes, the camera tracks him just jogging – a man running away from or towards something, we don't know which. Director Steve McQueen likes these shots. He made the brilliant, anguished Hunger, about IRA men starving themselves to death in prison, also starring Fassbender. McQueen lets the actors act, have real conversations that hold the screen – like the one between prisoner and priest in Hunger – for minutes at a time. He ensures the familiar emotional routes the film takes – sex as a transparent attempt to connect – don't feel cliched.

Brandon is also starving, emotionally. He explains to Sissy that he has a great life, a great job (whatever it is he does), a great apartment. She snorts. What a life, she suggests. What a family, we think (of whose past we learn precisely nothing). He tries to escape his obsession, throwing out his paper porn and attempting to date a stable, smart co-worker, but it's futile when an entire red light district is just a click away.

You might hear Shame being described as challenging, or provocative, or adult. This means full frontal nudity, including both leads, and lots of fairly explicit, mostly joyless, simulated sex. Its moments of unmatched brilliance can't quite outweigh the fact that Mulligan doesn't get enough time to make Sissy much more than an annoyance. The film is also not ultimately as transgressive as it hopes, and the desperate couplings that signal Brandon's inevitable fall finally outlast their (polite) welcome.


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