Shame – Review

Worth seeing: for Fassbender's tightly-controlled performance as a sex addict in a compelling but unrewarding drama
Director:Steve McQueen
Featuring:Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Elizabeth Masucci, James Badger Dale, Lucy Walters, Nicole Beharie
Length:101 minutes
Certificate:18
Country:UK
Released:13th January 2012

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) likes women and women like Brandon. He thinks nothing of picking up women on the subway, in bars or even in work and if he fails, he’s perfectly happy to pay for sex.

In his New York apartment, in hotels, in alleyways. He doesn’t care where. And he doesn’t care who. And on those rare occasions when he can’t have sex, he’s content to pleasure himself – he needs to pleasure himself.

Sex is an addiction for Brandon, but as many smokers are comfortable with their habit, Brandon bears no shame in how he lives his life. He’s polite and sociable to the outside world and bears his addiction with confidence.

Even when his work computer is confiscated and examined by the IT department, he’s not worried about them finding details of pornography sites he’s visited – not least when he should have been working.

When his slacker sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up to stay at his place unannounced, rather than seeing this as an opportunity to try to bring his behaviour more into line with the generally accepted norm, for him the visit gets in the way – having his sister sleeping on the couch is hardly a sexy prospect for bringing the ladies home.

But it’s when Sissy starts sleeping with Brandon’s boss, ladies’ man David (James Badger Dale), that he starts to lose control of his addiction and it starts to rule him.

He suddenly finds nameless sex isn’t enough but when he actually likes people, he can’t connect with them on anything other than a sexual level.

Even rejecting as many reminders as he can about sex from his life, in a city like New York, he’s constantly surrounded by the biggest reminder of them all – women. When he accepts that he has a problem, shaking it off isn’t easy.

And Sissy’s demanding insecurity is the last thing he needs at a time of crisis in his own life.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

After Steve McQueen made the jump from video-installation artist to film director with the powerful IRA drama Hunger, the world waited with baited breath to see what he would come up with to follow it. It would have to be equally provocative but meaningful.

With the help of the same lead actor, the always reliable and increasingly ubiquitous Michael Fassbender (Shame and A Dangerous Method shone at the London Film Festival just months after he impressed in Jane Eyre and Haywire comes out later this month), provocative this certainly is – the extent to which it is meaningful is less clear.

For a tightly controlled performance that is bursting with pent-up frustration, Fassbender is already receiving awards recognition, but one can only wonder what clip of the film will be used at the presentation ceremonies as there is almost no scene in which he is not naked and engaged in some form of sexual activity – there’s certainly only one scene you could show your gran and that simply features his character watching his sister singing in an upscale Manhattan bar, with his boss drooling beside him.

The film effectively portrays an addiction, but despite the film’s title, Fassbender doesn’t seem to ashamed of his behaviour – it’s not even entirely clear whether the film is taking a moral stance against his sexual proclivity.

He doesn’t particularly seem to acknowledge it as a problem for most of the film, and his later attempts to change his behaviour don’t seem to be driven by shame – if anything, he’s more ashamed of his sister than he is of his addiction. We feel his shame more than he does.

But many a man, on a night out, will have sex at the front of his mind, raising the question of where innocent (or not so innocent) pleasure meets addiction in a similar way to thoughts about at what point recreational drinking or drug use gets out of hand.

Carey Mulligan delivers another strong performance as she continues to confirm herself as the go-to actress for the troubled female lead, on both sides of the Atlantic.

But that’s the thing – coming just three months after Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, it’s interesting to see yet another British director using British money to shoot British (or in Fassbender’s case, Irish) actors playing American characters in US-set films. It’s almost disappointing that so much British talent – and British money – is involved in such runaway productions, as if Britain itself has no stories to tell.

McQueen – whose debut feature Hunger broke many of the conventions of standard film-making and was praised and criticised for so doing in equal measure – this time takes a more conventional approach, setting up the character, presenting him with challenges and following him as he tries to resolve them. In a sense, this makes for a less interesting film than one might expect from McQueen, but it also shows that he is able to fit into the world of film-making in a more subtle way, without shouting at the world that he craves to be different. It’s a slick film, beautifully lit, cleanly designed and skillfully choreographed with the camera chasing characters around the screen with a fluid confidence.

The film is challenging, but not altogether convincing – it’s compelling, but not particularly rewarding; the film’s natural catharsis fails to take the audience on the same journey as the protagonist.

It’s the latest in a line of films about dark characters who traverse life with their morale trailing in the gutter and with little hope of turning things around.